Sound Transit Opens 2 Line LRT

Written by David Peter Alan, Contributing Editor
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Sound Transit photo.

Sound Transit, the regional agency in the Seattle area, has been expanding lately. Its most recent light rail expansion, the 2 Line, opened on Saturday, April 27. The new line connects Bellevue and Redmond, but it does not connect to the 1, the rail spine that goes through Seattle on a north-south alignment, at least not yet. Still, the opening brought out an all-star lineup of Washington State officials and a rain-diminished retinue of riders who had been anticipating the opening day for a long time.

Seattle Area Rail Transit

A Kinkisharyo-Mitsui LRV on Link approaching SeaTac/Airport station. The airport’s control tower is seen in the background. SounderBruce/Wikimedia Commons.

Seattle has several rail transit lines, most of them disconnected. The light rail lines are operated by Sound Transit, a regional operating authority that forms part of the region’s transit system with county-level bus operations like King County Metro in Seattle and Pierce County Transit in Tacoma. Sound Transit also runs buses, in addition to Sounder commuter trains that use King Street Station in downtown Seattle, even though there is no connection between the tracks that Sounder uses and the ones that Amtrak uses at that facility. The entrances to platforms are separate for each operator. Only two Sounder trains come to Seattle from Everett (north of the city) on weekday mornings and return in the late afternoon. There is more service for people who live south of Seattle, with an “extended peak” to Tacoma and Lakewood from the mid-afternoon to very early evening. There is no “off-peak” service on Sounder, although there are full-service bus routes from Seattle to Everett and Tacoma.

There are also two Seattle Streetcar routes owned by the City and operated by King County Metro: the First Street Streetcar and the South Lake Union Streetcar. The latter was originally called the “South Lake Union Trolley,” a misnomer, because it runs with pantographs rather than trolley poles, while the original acronym—SLUT—had become problematic. The two lines are disconnected, and it will be several years before a new segment is built to connect them.

Siemens S70 LRV. Siemens Mobility photo.

Sound Transit’s light rail lines are disconnected, too. The spine of the system is the 26-mile Link (formerly known as Central Link), a line that extends from north of the city at Northgate (named for a 1950-vintage mall), through downtown Seattle, to Angle Lake, a station near SeaTac Airport and almost halfway from downtown Seattle to Tacoma. It is called the 1 Line today. The other pre-existing line was originally called the Tacoma Link but was renamed the T-Line. It is four miles long and serves downtown Tacoma on a U-shaped alignment with twelve stations. It originally had only five stops, but a relatively recent extension doubled its length. Tacoma is about one hour south of Seattle by rail, and the T-Line connects with Amtrak trains and Sounder commuter runs. The 1 and 2 Lines run LRVs made by Kinkisharyo-Mitsui or Siemens, while the T-Line uses streetcars from Skoda.

2 Line Festivities

Sound Transit photo.

The 2 Line opened for service on a chilly day. The ensuing rain dampened the enthusiasm and magnitude of the crowds who had gone to the outlying stations to join local celebrations, but it did not have that effect on the main event at the Bellevue Transit Center, where the line connects with buses to Seattle and other places. It takes about 35 minutes to get there from downtown Seattle on an express bus (#550), although they run relatively frequently, with30-minute headways on Saturdays. The event had the atmosphere normally associated with such occasions, with local businesses and civic organizations occupying booths and giving booklets and other information to the crowds.

The opening ceremony w started at 10:17, and there were 11 speakers featured. Claudia Balducci, a member of the King County Council and the Sound Transit Board, acted as MC. She said she had fought for the line, and that it was the “culmination of a longtime dream for almost 20 years.” Muckleshoot Tribal Council member Donny Stevenson paid tribute to the “First People,” “the people who had lived and moved around the region” and acknowledged that good transportation fosters unity.

Sound Transit photo.

Then it was time to hear from more elected officials, including all three who hold major statewide offices. Sen. Patty Murray (D-Wash.) said, “Transit is the top priority in Washington State” and that she was glad “to see this project finally become a reality … We will no longer have to wait for years for light rail to come to Bellevue. Now it will be every ten minutes.” Maria Cantwell (D-Wash.), her Senate colleague, recalled how she had to fight against other officials who wanted to cut the transit budget. She said, “Let’s continue to help transit make our economy work” and looked forward to getting to Bellevue in 14 minutes, rather than 40. King County Executive Dow Constantine said it was “a historic day for the East Side” as Bellevue and Redmond “are finally connected … We did it! That’s what today is about.” Gov. Jay Inslee noted that the idea for the line started in 1969 and called it “a monument to our community and our people.” He called for more transportation that would fight climate change, including more buses, bikes and sidewalks.

Sound Transit photo.

Other speakers praised the safety of rail transit, the economic benefits of transit-oriented development (TOD), and the other benefits that come with enhanced transit. Representatives of corporate sponsors Microsoft and Amazon were on hand, too, as they touted the companies’ contributions to the project. Microsoft representative Brad Smith praised the “persistence and commitment of the community” and recalled that the first vote on the project took place in 2007. Vernon Lumpkin, a student at the University of Washington, represented his age cohort. He started by saying, “I love trains.” He mentioned growing up in Singapore and Munich, “where there are lots of trains.” He saw transit as a means for enhancing opportunity and access and added that the privilege once represented by car keys “is now in the form of a light rail car.”

Taking the First Ride

Sound Transit photo.

The ceremony ended at 11:20 with a ribbon cutting and a shower of Sound Transit’s version of confetti: small, blue paper rectangles. The officials involved in the ceremony walked downstairs to the platform first, followed by eager riders, to the sound of a jazz band and the sight of dancers. Trains approached the station on both tracks to get into position for service. The first train, which consisted of two units, left at 11:34.

The line runs in a cut briefly, is elevated for a while, and descends into another cut before the Spring District station, in the middle of the line. It continues along a highway, either at surface level or elevated, for most of the way to Technology Center. The first southbound run left there at 11:53. To have some time at that station, I took the next departure, which left at 12:10, and spent one headway at every station on the way to the other end of the line at South Bellevue. The activity at Technology Center included food (as at most of the other stations) and Chinese lion dancers. It started to rain hard when I got to the Spring District station, which dampened the mood at the next few local stations going south. The festivities at Spring District were held one block from the station, which felt like a long walk in the rain. Toward the end of the ride, the celebrations were starting to wind down ahead of schedule. Downtown Bellevue, where the opening ceremony took place, had lost most of its earlier crowd. The line goes through a tunnel before arriving at the next stop, East Main Street, where two singers with their guitars serenaded nobody in particular. They were good performers, but it appeared that the rain had stolen their audience. The route ends at South Bellevue, a short walk from the stop for the #550 bus back to downtown Seattle.

Sound Transit photo.

Service runs every 10 minutes, and the schedule is the same every day. It does not run late into the evening, as the last run from each end leaves shortly after 9:30. The line is not scenic, but it takes riders between Bellevue and Redmond in 20 minutes or less, which was something not possible on transit before. One of the less-pleasant aspects of the trip was watching the vehicles on the highway overtake us as we traveled along its alignment.

Sound Transit Expansion

The new 6.6-mile line is the first segment of East Link expansion of the light rail system. It includes eight stations, from South Bellevue to the Technology Center Station in Redmond. The running time is 20 minutes, end to end. There are plans to expand the line with three stations in the I-90 corridor between Bellevue and the route of the 1 Line in downtown Seattle (at International Junction in Chinatown) for 4 miles, as well as two more stations in Redmond, north of the line’s current terminal, 3.7 miles of expansion. These extensions are scheduled to open in 2025. Another extension currently under construction will bring the 1 Line north of Northgate to Lynnwood, 8.5 miles away. The 2 Line will run from Redmond and Bellevue, and through downtown Seattle on that segment. A 7.8-mile extension of the 1 Line from Angle Lake south to Federal Way is slated to open in 2026.

The West Seattle Link Extension (the start of the 3 Line), an extension of the 1 Line to Tacoma and the Ballard Link Extension from downtown Seattle to that community are all under environmental review and are scheduled to open in the 2030s. More lines are planned for still-later service, under Sound Transit’s 20-year planning frontier. This is far in the future but, for now, Bellevue and Redmond are connected, and they are slated to be connected to downtown Seattle by rail as soon as next year.

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