Politics & Government

Transit to airport on track for July

After decades of wrangling over mass transit and worsening traffic congestion, a light rail line between downtown and a spot near Seattle-Tacoma International Airport is set to open July 18, Mayor Greg Nickels said Monday.

Live music and free shuttle service at some stations along the 13.9-mile Link route are planned for the opening of the $2.4 billion first phase in a 55-mile network that is scheduled to operate between Lynnwood and Federal Way and across Lake Washington between downtown Seattle and Redmond by 2023, said Nickels, chairman of Sound Transit.

Based on the start-up of a new system in Phoenix in December, Sound Transit is planning for 100,000 riders on opening day and an average of 26,000 a day afterward, said Joni Earl, chief executive of the three-county transit agency.

Rather than following the regular schedule of a two-car train every 71/2 minutes at peak hours and every 10 to 15 minutes at other times of day, first-day trains will run as closely behind each other as possible, and some will have three cars, Earl said.

“We expect large crowds,” Nickels said. “We really want to invite the whole public to come celebrate with us.”

A tentative opening date of July 3 was included earlier in federal grant documents. Nickels said it was pushed back 15 days to ease the load on police and firefighters concerned about being slammed on the Fourth of July weekend and by other crowd-drawing events the next weekend, not because of construction or other delays.

As it is, he noted, big crowds are expected to ride the rails for the first time July 18 to the Seattle Sounders’ soccer exhibition game with Chelsea of the English Premier League at noon at Safeco Field and for the Bite of Seattle at Seattle Center.

Nickels and Earl said much of their optimism was based on response in Phoenix, where ridership hit 90,000 on opening day and 60,000 on the second day, then settled at an average of 30,000 a day, compared with an initial estimate of 26,000 a day in normal operations.

With each two-car train capable of seating 74 passengers with standing room for about 136, ridership in Seattle also is projected at 26,000 daily after the opening hoopla.

The line runs from a tunnel beneath Third Avenue in the downtown core south to a station in Tukwila from which free shuttle buses will take passengers to and from the airport terminal until a 1.7-mile extension and the airport station are opened in December.

Next up is a $1.9 billion extension through a pair of tunnels to Seattle’s University District, scheduled to open in 2016.

Last fall a $22.8 billion ballot measure designed largely to finance light rail extensions north, south and east was approved with a 59 percent yes vote, a marked turnaround from voter rejection a year earlier of a more sweeping plan that also included road improvements and new park & ride lots.

Mass transit has been a source of fierce political wrangling in the Seattle area since light rail was first proposed in a set of bond issues called Forward Thrust in 1967. The transit component drew a 50.8 percent yes vote, well short of the 60 percent supermajority that was required for approval at the time.

Meanwhile, traffic congestion as rated by the Texas Transportation Institute soared to the top five of the nation’s largest urban areas in recent years, trailing only New York and San Francisco-Oakland in 2007.