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Sound Transit (King, Pierce, and Snohomish counties)

HistoryLink.org Essay 8002 : Printer-Friendly Format

Sound Transit is the agency responsible for building and operating high-capacity public transit systems in the heavily populated areas of King, Pierce, and Snohomish counties. Officially the Central Puget Sound Regional Transit Authority (RTA), Sound Transit operates light rail, commuter rail, and express buses. It also builds high-occupancy vehicle (HOV) lane improvements, transit stations, park and ride lots, and related facilities. Sound Transit has been headquartered in Seattle's historic Union Station since November 1999.

Growing Needs, Early Planning

Until 1940, the Puget Sound region had a well-developed rail and bus system linking Everett, Seattle, Tacoma, and intermediate points, but it fell out of favor and was replaced by a growing highway system. As traffic congestion and suburban sprawl increased, repeated attempts were made to re-create a regional rail-transit system, but King County voters rejected various options proposed in 1958, 1962, 1968, and 1970.

Metro Transit, an all-bus system now operated by King County, was approved in 1972, and an advisory ballot measure supporting development of a rail system passed in 1988. The state's 1990 High Capacity Transportation Act authorized King, Pierce and Snohomish counties to create a single agency to plan, build, and operate a high-capacity transit system within the region's most heavily used travel corridors. The three-county Joint Regional Policy Committee, created in 1990 to plan for a regional transit system, grew into the RTA, which held its first board of directors' meeting in September 1993. The name Sound Transit was adopted in August 1997.

On March 14, 1995, voters rejected the RTA's $6.7 billion plan for a regional transit system, but on November 5, 1996, they approved a scaled-back version valued at $3.9 billion by a 56.5 percent to 43.5 percent margin. The measure received a majority of votes in each of the three counties in the Sound Transit district (58.8 percent in King County, 54.4 percent in Snohomish County, and 50.1 percent in Pierce County).

The 1996 plan, known as Sound Move, included new regional bus routes, commuter trains, light rail, and a number of transit center, park-and-ride lot, and HOV access projects. The vote authorized a local 0.4 percent sales tax and 0.3 percent motor-vehicle-excise tax (MVET) to finance the construction and operation of the regional transit system, making it one of the largest public works projects in the region’s history.

Light Rail

Light rail, a modern version of the trolleys and trams that have run on city streets throughout the world for more than a century, was envisioned in both Seattle and Tacoma as part of the 1996 plan. The $80.4 million, 1.6-mile Tacoma Link light rail line opened on August 22, 2003. It runs from S 9th Street in the downtown theater district through the business district, and ends at the Tacoma Dome Station, where passengers can connect to Sounder commuter trains and buses. The Tacoma Link light rail system runs at street level at posted street speed limits (25 miles per hour). Despite its limited length and some disruptions during construction, ridership has exceeded projections.

The initial light rail line in Seattle, scheduled for completion in 2009, will travel under downtown in the transit tunnel completed in 1990 and used only by buses until 2005. (Despite having been built with rail in mind, the tunnel had to be reconfigured to meet modern track and platform standards, and is closed for construction from 2005-2007.) The line, known as Central Link and Airport Link, totals 15.7 miles and will connect downtown Seattle, the SoDo/stadiums area, Beacon Hill, Rainier Valley, Tukwila, and Seattle-Tacoma International Airport.

Getting to the airport has not been easy for Sound Transit. The initial estimates turned out to be significantly less than the reality, with the initial cost for a 21-mile line growing from $2.4 billion to $4.2 billion. In the wake of this revelation, Paul Bay, Sound Transit's director of Link light rail resigned in November 2000, followed by Bob White, the agency's executive director, in January 2001. Joni Earl, formerly the chief operating officer of Sound Transit, was appointed in an acting capacity, and was given permanent status in June 2001.

In April 2001, the U.S. Department of Transportation's Inspector General released a report criticizing the project's financial planning, which led to Federal grant funds being suspended. In late May, Sound Transit's Executive Director told the agency's board of directors that the light rail project might need to be abandoned. But in November, the Sound Transit board approved a shortened, $2.4 billion, 14-mile line that started in downtown, eliminating Capitol Hill, First Hill, and the University District, and cut the line about a mile short of the airport, potentially leaving light rail riders needing to take a shuttle bus from S 154th Street in Tukwila to the airport terminal. But in October 2003, the Federal grant was finally released, and in early 2005, bids for construction came in sufficiently under budget to allow the airport extension to be added again to the project, ending the jokes about building a "line to nowhere."

By that time, however, disruptions related to construction were being felt at all points along the line, especially in Beacon Hill and the Rainier Valley. By February 2006, 44 of the 274 businesses along Martin Luther King Jr. Way, where much of the line's construction took place, were no longer operating, despite $7.5 million in "mitigation funds" from the Rainier Valley Community Development Fund. And local minority construction workers staged rallies protesting that African Americans were not receiving an equitable share of construction work for the project. The line between  downtown Seattle and Tukwila finally opened on July 18, 2009, and service was extended to SeaTac International Airport on December 19, 2009.

In April 2006, the Sound Transit board approved the route for the second Seattle light rail line, called University Link, which would extend from the end of the first line at the Convention Center, through Capitol Hill to Husky Stadium on the University of Washington campus. Construction is planned to begin in 2008 and be completed in 2016.

Preliminary planning is also underway for the "East Link" line from Seattle to Bellevue. This line would require placing rails on the Interstate 90 floating bridge, and there had been concerns that the bridge could not bear the weight of the train cars. So in September 2005, a test simulating the weight of the trains was undertaken, and the results indicated that the line could be built on the bridge if it was modified by removing some of the concrete, a task estimated to cost $31 million. The total cost for East Link had not yet been determined.

Commuter Rail

The "Sounder" commuter rail service began in September 2000 with two trains in each direction between Tacoma and Seattle’s King Street Station every weekday. The two-level Sounder passenger cars featured comfortable seats, restrooms, cup holders, water fountains, work tables, protected outlets for laptop computers and storage areas for bicycles, wheelchairs and strollers. On its first day, Sounder carried more than 1,100 passengers. In April of 2001, Sounder began running Sounder trains to Sunday Seattle Mariners baseball games. The “Home Run” service quickly became popular, and was expanded to serve Seattle Seahawks football games in August 2002.

The Tacoma-Seattle service is one leg of an 82-mile commuter rail system with 12 stations using existing railroad tracks between Everett, Seattle, Tacoma, and Lakewood. Service from Everett to Seattle was delayed during protracted negotiations for use of the line between Sound Transit and the Burlington Northern Santa Fe (BNSF) railroad, which owns the tracks. BNSF wanted Sound Transit to pay for the cost of improving the line, including building a second track along portions of the line that had only one track, and a $250 million agreement between Sound Transit and BNSF was signed on May 29, 2003. On December 22, 2003, Everett-Seattle Sounder service finally began with one train running south from Everett to Seattle's King Street Station in the morning and one train running north in the afternoon. Each train also stopped in Edmonds.

Delays also occurred as the tracks, which run along the shores of Puget Sound for much of the distance between Seattle and Everett, were blocked by mudslides caused by heavy rains several times in 2004 and 2006.

Ridership on Sounder has been lower than expected, but as of 2006 the agency was operating four round-trips daily between Tacoma and Seattle, and two daily between Seattle and Everett. It had also made an agreement with Amtrak that allows Sound Transit commuters to use Amtrak's Seattle-to-Everett trains. Two additional Tacoma-Seattle trips are planned for September 2007.

Commuter Buses

While perhaps receiving the least attention of its services, Sound Transit's express bus service aimed at commuters was the first of the agency's operations to begin. In September 1999, Sound Transit began operating nine new ST Express regional bus routes. Drivers from King County Metro, Snohomish County's Community Transit, and Pierce Transit actually operate the buses. By 2006, Sound Transit operated approximately 25 separate routes.

Sound Transit is funding freeway HOV direct-access ramps. This unique partnership, in which a regional transit agency is underwriting improvements to state highways, is intended to ensure fast and reliable local and regional bus service, encourage carpool and vanpool use, and eliminate the need for buses and carpools to weave through general traffic at freeway entrances and exits.

Sound Transit has also participated in public-private partnerships for "transit-oriented development," communities that incorporate transit into their planning. Such developments as the Village at Overlake Station, which was billed as "King County's first combination apartment complex/transit station," (Singer) are designed to encourage transit use and reduce sprawl.

Equal Slices of the Pie

Because it was recognized that voter approval for significant transit improvements would be stronger in urban areas, only voters in the most congested areas of King, Pierce, and Snohomish counties were asked to approve -- and pay for -- the regional transit system. The agency's service boundary generally follows the urban growth boundaries created by each county in accordance with the state's 1990 Growth Management Act.

In addition, safeguards were built into the plan ensuring that tax revenues from specific areas would be used to benefit projects in those areas. This concept, known as "subarea equity," divided the Sound Transit service area into five districts: Snohomish County, North King County, South King County, East King County, and Pierce County. Simultaneous work has been undertaken on projects in each of the subareas, but services and fares are being integrated throughout the region.

Sound Transit is governed by an 18-member Board of Directors; 17 members are local elected officials, and the 18th member is the Washington State Department of Transportation Secretary. Local elected officials include mayors, city council members, county executives, and county council members from within the Sound Transit District. Currently, the Sound Transit Board includes three members from Snohomish County, 10 from King County, four from Pierce County, and the State Transportation Department secretary.

Sources:
Walt Crowley, Routes: A Brief History of Public Transportation in Metropolitan Seattle, Seattle: Municipality of Metropolitan Seattle, 1993, 63-72, 83-84; George Foster, "All Aboard for a Transit Move That Brackets a Whole Century," Seattle Post-Intelligencer, October 14, 1999 (http://seattlepi.nwsource.com); George Foster, "Light Rail Wins Final Approval," Ibid., November 30, 2001 (http://seattlepi.nwsource.com); Jane Hadley, "Final Bids Boost Sound Transit's Optimism," Ibid., February 16, 2005 (http://seattlepi.nwsource.com); Jane Hadley and Charles Pope, "Sound Transit Clears Hurdle Ibid.,, October 23, 2003 (http://seattlepi.nwsource.com/); HistoryLink.org Online Encyclopedia of Washington State History, "Bus service begins in downtown Seattle transit tunnel on September 15, 1990" (by Walt Crowley), "Interurban Rail Transit in King County and the Puget Sound Region -- A Snapshot History" (by Walt Crowley), "Sound Transit's Tacoma Link light rail system begins operation on August 22, 2003" (by Alyssa Burrows), http://www.historylink.org/ (accessed October 30, 2006); Larry Lange, "Key Vote OKs Rail Line to UW," Seattle Post-Intelligencer, April 21, 2006 (http://seattlepi.nwsource.com/); Mike Lindblom, "It's Not 'All Aboard' for Sounder," The Seattle Times, June 8, 2003 (http://seattletimes.nwsource.com/); "Loss of Federal Funds for Sound Transit Is Confirmed," Seattle Post-Intelligencer, April 6, 2001 (http://seattlepi.nwsource.com/); Chris McGann, "No Federal Money for Light Rail," Ibid., April 5, 2001 (http://seattlepi.nwsource.com/); Chris McGann, "Sound Transit at a 'Crossroads,' Agency Board Is Told," Ibid.,, May 25, 2001 (http://seattlepi.nwsource.com/); Denise Miller, "Businesses Suffer, But Light Rail Project Is on Time and Under Budget," Beacon Hill News, February 6, 2006 (http://www.pacificpublishingcompany.com/); Ed Penhale, "Transit Is Beaten; Pine Wins," Seattle Post-Intelligencer, March 15, 1995 (http://seattlepi.nwsource.com/); Eric Pryne, "Test Shows I-90 Bridge Can Take Light Rail," The Seattle Times, December 16, 2005 (http://seattletimes.nwsource.com/); Eric Pryne, "Sounder Officials OK with Low Ridership," Ibid., February 2, 2004 (http://seattletimes.nwsource.com/); Natalie Singer, "Redmond Residents Like Village by the (Bus) Bay," Ibid., January 20, 2003 (http://seattletimes.nwsource.com/); Sound Transit website accessed November 6, 2006 (http://www.soundtransit.org/); Brad Wong and Sam Skolnik, "Protesters Want More Blacks Building Sound Transit Light Rail," Seattle Post-Intelligencer, April 28, 2006 (http://seattlepi.nwsource.com/).


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Yardsign for Sound Transit campaign, 1996
Courtesy Marie McCaffrey


Brochure for Sound Transit campaign, 1996
Courtesy Gogerty Marriott Stark Public Affairs


Renovated Union Station (Sound Transit headquarters), Seattle, 1999
Courtesy Nitze-Stagen


Joni Earl, Executive Director, Sound Transit, 2004
Courtesy Sound Transit


Tacoma Link rollout, summer 2003
Courtesy Sound Transit


Tacoma Dome Station, 2003
Photo by David Wilma


Tacoma Link car test on 25th Street, summer 2003
Courtesy Sound Transit


Mayor Greg Nickels and Sound Transit vice chair laying the first Central Link light rail, SODO, Seattle, August 17, 2005
Courtesy Sound Transit


Rebuilding transit tunnel with new rails, Seattle, January 6, 2006
Courtesy Sound Transit


Sound Transit's Beacon Hill Station platform under construction, September 29, 2006
Courtesy Sound Transit


Sound Transit's Sounder commuter trains began running between Tacoma and Seattle on September 18, 2000
Courtesy Sound Transit


Seattle Mariners play-by-play announcer Dave Niehaus and the Mariner Moose help launch the Sounder "Home Run Special," Seattle, July 29, 2005
Courtesy Sound Transit


Sound Transit Sounder commuter train at Auburn Station, Auburn, August 25, 2006
Courtesy Sound Transit


Transit-oriented development, The Village at Overlake Station, Redmond, 2003
Courtesy King County Department of Transportation


HOV access lane at Ash Way Transit Center, Lynnwood, September 23, 2005
Courtesy Sound Transit


 
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