CHOKEPOINTS

Light rail finally reaches Northgate, a promise 25 years in the making

Sep 28, 2021, 5:30 AM

Northgate light rail...

Northgate light rail terminal. (Photo courtesy of Sound Transit)

(Photo courtesy of Sound Transit)

Sound Transit opens light rail service to Northgate on Oct. 2, 2021. It is the culmination of a promise made to voters 25 years ago.

After the ribbons are cut on Saturday and cheers die down, you might want to remember that Sound Transit included service to Northgate in the first package, known as Sound Move, passed by voters in 1996. That package promised light rail between the airport and the University District in 10 years at a cost of $1.67 billion. As you likely know, Sound Transit didn’t make it to the University District until 2016, a full 10 years behind schedule and way over budget. The Seattle Times estimated the overruns to be 86%, and that original figure ballooned to close to $5 billion.

So, when Sound Transit tells you it’s on time and on budget, that assumes the first 10 years of the agency and the financial mismanagement in that initial decade don’t really exist. The agency just reset its timetable. To be fair, Sound Transit has been doing a much better job with scheduling and budgeting since then, but it is still running more than $6 billion in the hole today.

It would be easy to blame Sound Transit for all of this, but it would likely have been hard to predict the financial bubble that burst in 2009, a global pandemic in 2020, and the incredible spike in property values and construction costs. Those all contributed to scaled back or delayed projects through ST-2, which passed in 2008, and ST-3, which passed in 2016.

Ridership has never really reached the levels Sound Transit predicted either. It expected to have 280,000 passengers a day by 2030. Ridership is still way off because of the pandemic, and it isn’t likely that the agency will hit that rosy number, but I have long predicted that light rail really won’t matter until it goes places, until it gets to where commuters really are.

Once it gets to Bellevue in 2023, and Lynnwood, Federal Way, and Redmond by 2024, it might have a shot at getting commuters out of their cars, but Sound Transit doesn’t even pitch light rail as a congestion reliever. Today, it’s pitched as an alternative to sitting in traffic, with fast and reliable trips. The trains will run every eight minutes out of Northgate.

Three new light rail stations to open in North Seattle next month

There are changes to the system that daily commuters, especially those from Snohomish County, will have to prepare for as well. Most buses out of Snohomish County will no longer go all the way into Seattle. They will now dump their passengers at the Northgate light rail terminal, and those passengers will have to finish their trips on light rail.

The line names and numbers of light rail have also changed. This north-south light rail line is now called the Number 1 line or the green line.

Getting to Northgate this weekend should be celebrated. It’s one more step toward delivering on what Sound Transit has promised to voters and for what people in the taxing district have been paying into for a quarter century. But voters and taxpayers should never forget how we got here, and should hold Sound Transit and its leadership accountable.

Check out more of Chris’ Chokepoints.

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