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Seattle finally gets its light rail


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POSTED: Saturday, August 01, 2009

SEATTLE » It takes only a few moments to ride an elevator from the platform of the famous and once futuristic Seattle monorail down to the platform of this city's new $3.9 billion light rail line. Creating the connection, though, took nearly a half-century.

When the mile-long monorail was built in less than a year for the 1962 World's Fair here, it was proclaimed “;the world's most modern transportation system.”; Forty-seven years later and largely a tourist attraction vulnerable to mechanical troubles, it is still chrome-cool evidence of Seattle's urban ambition.

“;We thought, 'By God, we would lick the world,'”; said Jim Ellis, a longtime lawyer and civic leader here, recalling the optimism prompted by the fair's success and early local efforts in areas like environmental cleanup. “;I said to my friends, 'Why don't we try for an overall capital improvement program that will make us the city of the future?'”;

Much of what was known as Forward Thrust, the expansive 1968 proposal that included everything from parks to sewer pipes to a zoo expansion and a subway beneath this hilly city, has been built. But not until July 18, after four decades of proposals and public votes, did a variation of the transit part, a 14-mile Central Link light rail line, finally open. For all the celebrations, a common reaction in this city, which is still regarded as more forward-thrusting than most, has been, “;What took us so long?”;

“;How many years ago could this have been done?”; said Susan Arbury, who rode the new train into Seattle for a conference this week.

“;We could have been adding on to this by now.”;

Arbury, who grew up in Seattle and is now a school principal in Enumclaw, Wash., added: “;It's just that people are so funny here. They like to argue every small point.”;

Regardless of shifts in the economy, political priorities or public sentiment, it is almost universally perceived that much of the delay can be attributed to a mysterious and maddening phenomenon known as the “;Seattle process.”;

Plodding seems to prevail over production. It is said to be rooted in everything from the supposed social reserve of the region's many Scandinavian and Japanese immigrants to a ruminative tendency nurtured by rainy winters. Economic booms and busts, particularly linked to the fortunes of Boeing, one of Seattle's longtime economic anchors, have also fostered hesitation. The challenging topography is an issue, too. And there is the ongoing debate over whether Seattle, distinctively secluded in the mountains and maritime mist, should even aspire to be like other cities. Change, regardless of whether it is made in the name of a greener, less congested future, has plenty of skeptics. (One camp promotes “;Lesser Seattle.”;)

A firm fact is that all these matters will be discussed, deliberatively and intelligently. There will be grave concern. Wit will duel resignation.

“;Talk big, debate long, do little. Rinse, repeat,”; David Brewster wrote in the local online journal Crosscut.

Talking about the Seattle process has become part of the process.

“;It's one of those cities that is introspective to the point of no return,”; said Ellis, 87. “;But on the other hand, every now and then they do gutsy stuff.”;

In fact, some make the case that gutsy is gaining momentum, Seattle-style. The city has one of the nation's most aggressive recycling and food and yard waste programs; it has taken direct action to combat global warming, including reducing its carbon emissions. This year, after nearly a decade of debate, an agreement was reached among city, county and state leaders to replace an earthquake-damaged freeway downtown with an underground tunnel that will cost more than $4 billion. (Reminder: an agreement here does not necessarily equal construction.)

The tone of city politics has shifted to the point that a recent flurry of coverage surrounding Mayor Greg Nickels's run for a third term centered on whether his aggressive tactics have made him resemble the political boss of Chicago, Richard M. Daley. It is unclear whether Daley shares Nickels' affection for smooth jazz.

And perhaps most importantly, last fall, as some governments elsewhere were cutting projects amid economic freefall, voters overwhelming approved an $18 billion expansion of the light rail system that will take it deep into Seattle's suburbs. There was $145 million, too, for parks. With the light rail expansion, ridership is expected to grow to about 280,000 in 2030 from 26,600 projected for next year, after the current line connects to the airport in December.

Not that after all these years too many people are bragging. Bruce Gray, a spokesman for Sound Transit, the regional agency that oversees the rail line and some bus and commuter train services, volunteered that Seattle is “;decades behind other cities.”;

“;We're here, we're building more,”; Gray said.

The fact that Seattle is behind on transit is something of a sore point for Ellis. He noted that Seattle was set to receive $900 million in federal funding had voters approved the subway plan in 1968. (A 60 percent vote was needed but the proposal received 51 percent.) The money ended up going to Atlanta, which used it to build MARTA, its bus and rail service.

Ellis insists he is not bitter. He says he sees signs of change, though he is careful, of course, to draw conclusions.

“;When you ask an optimist if people are at a turning point, he's always going to say, 'I hope so,'”; Ellis said, “;and that's what I'm saying.”;