Monday, October 18, 2021
Oct. 18, 2021

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Light rail ready to open at Northgate, transforming more than just commutes

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SEATTLE —Sound Transit needed 25 years of campaigns, taxes and labor to finally extend light rail to Northgate where, starting Saturday, thousands of people will find new ways to cross the congested city.

The $1.9 billion, 4.3-mile megaproject marks another transformation to growing North Seattle, where farms and marshes around Thornton Creek were paved to build one of America’s first drive-up shopping centers in 1950.

Light rail arrives just in time for traffic-free connections to the new Kraken Community Iceplex and a walk-bike bridge over Interstate 5 to North Seattle College, to be followed by thousands of new apartments, offices, a medical clinic and two proposed hotels.

“It’s an asset, it’s a jewel, not just for the city, not just for the county, not just for the region and nationally because of the NHL,” said City Councilmember Debora Juarez, whose district includes Northgate. “When you look at a building, when you look at a bridge, when you look at a station, what do those three things have in common? They say, ‘Come here, this is where all the good stuff is.’ It brings people together.”

Trains from the new Northgate Station can reach downtown in 14 minutes, which transit rider Jason Herzberg called “Superb!” Herzberg said he’s “grateful for finally seeing our community tax dollars pay off.”

“If this can take 5% of the cars off the road, I think it’s going to create a reduction in traffic,” he said. “I’m really excited about the spread all the way to Bellevue, and up to Everett. As additional stations open up in the next decade, a lot of two-car households are going to have one car.”

Sound Transit has estimated the new Northgate, Roosevelt and U District stations that open Saturday will attract a combined 42,000-49,000 riders per day, adding to the 80,000 who rode light rail before COVID-19.

There’s no assurance the rail line will reach that standard soon. Riders are returning, but still at half the pre-pandemic numbers. Crime, trash and boarded windows haunt downtown. Amazon and Microsoft postponed calling staff back to their office towers. Worldwide, the Moody’s bond rating company foresees major transit networks losing 20% demand to teleworking.

Community Transit CEO Ric Ilgenfritz, a former Sound Transit planning executive, estimates normal ridership could return by early 2023, based on industry data and studies.

Politicians expect to beat the ridership goals. Neighborhoods are growing beyond the rates forecast back in 2006, when the line’s environmental studies were written. The Roosevelt urban village has doubled to 3,346 housing units just since 2015, with an additional 624 permitted. At least seven tower cranes are aloft in the U District, where 2,480 more housing units are permitted. More than 3,000 new units are proposed or permitted at Northgate.

“History is our predictor. The city of Seattle is not standing still,” said Mayor Jenny Durkan, who once worked at the Northgate J.C. Penney store. “And if you’d opened the station at Northgate 20 years ago, you’d have very different ridership than you’ll have today …. We are a city that continues to attract more residents, more businesses, and I believe we will into the future.”

John Niles, a transportation technology analyst and bus-rapid transit advocate skeptical of Sound Transit, said he continues to view the Northgate corridor as a test line for the agency’s long-term ambitions for reaching Everett, South Kirkland, Tacoma and Issaquah. Ridership might be surprisingly low post-COVID, he thinks.

Even if light rail is popular, Sound Transit is “threading the needle” because its four-car trains are too small to relieve traffic congestion, he argues. He suggests adding bus and van services north of Lynnwood that can adapt quickly to demand at lower cost than rail.

“Either way, a revision of the entire regional mass-transit scheme should be put before the voters,” he said.

Sound Transit no longer promises to make driving faster, but to offer alternatives to traffic jams, including the 177,000 daily vehicles that clog I-5 at Northgate.

Catching a train

At the outset, a train will arrive every eight minutes at peak times, and every 10 minutes middays and most weekend hours.

Sound Transit could add trains as demand grows. They’ll appear as often as every four minutes when the line to Bellevue opens in 2023. Those Eastside trains will turn north into downtown Seattle and continue to UW and Northgate, doubling light-rail capacity in the busiest parts of the city.

Most bus trips from Snohomish County will change next weekend to end at Northgate Station, instead of going all the way to the University of Washington or downtown. Riders would finish their trips on light rail. But some routes, including Community Transit’s 400-series lines and Sound Transit 510, will continue into downtown.

Ilgenfritz expects savvy commuters will check traffic apps and news before they decide between a direct bus down I-5, or one where they transfer to a train at Northgate. By not going into the traffic jams of the U District and downtown, bus agencies can run more trips per day.

“It’s putting the full menu of options on the table,” Ilgenfritz said. “For us in the North End, it’s given us the opportunity to provide a more reliable commute, day in and day out.”

Using the station

Northgate Station provides about 1,600 park-and-ride stalls, in three garages and a surface lot.

“It opens up a lot of places I can get to that are becoming difficult,” said Patrick McMonagle, who remembers when Northgate was marshes and cattails. Now he will park there and ride to work at Husky football games, and maybe enroll in a night class. “If my wife is going to the airport, I’d drop her off.”

The new pedestrian and bike bridge adds opportunities for arts and cultural events at North Seattle College, said President Chemene Crawford. Students can juggle classes between North and Central campuses, both near train stops, she said. Crawford thinks the current enrollment of 5,000 to 6,000 may increase.

“You can see it [the college] from the freeway, but then you have to wonder, ‘How do I get there?’ ” Crawford said. As people get used to Northgate Station, the college will look more accessible and visible, she expects. South of campus, plans are underway for 200 units of affordable housing, whose tenants will include youth transitioning from foster care.

King County announced it will break ground in 2023 on 232 units of affordable housing to partly replace a surface park-and-ride east of the station. North of the mall, “Northgate Commons” will replace wood-shingled two-story apartments with as many as 1,400 market-rate and affordable units. Juarez said she’s talked with developers about a potential performing arts center, grocery and Indigenous pharmacy. An additional 1,200 apartments are planned by Simon Property Group on the changing mall site.

Transportation agencies should have built a wide, parklike structure over the freeway, said Juarez. But the steel bridge is done after $56 million and years of negotiations, so Juarez may take this battle a mile north, where people west of I-5 will need to reach the 130th Street Station in 2025.

How we got here

Back in the 1950s, early options for the I-5 express lanes envisioned a transit conversion, like the light-rail tracks being installed on the I-90 floating bridge. A decade later, politicians mapped Northgate as a subway station, but voters in 1970 narrowly rejected the Forward Thrust transit measure.

A generation later, Sound Transit marketed “the Northgate to SeaTac light rail line” in its winning 1996 tax measure. The plan promised trains to the University District by 2006 and, “if the cost is lower than estimated and/or additional funds have been appropriated,” tracks would continue to Roosevelt and Northgate.

The agency grossly underestimated costs, especially tunneling through the muck of Portage Bay. Eventually that segment was shifted to the Montlake Cut, where a station opened at Husky Stadium in 2016. Cumulative costs for the service voters approved in 1996 — from the U District to Angle Lake — soared 86% higher than estimated, reaching about $5 billion, even after leaders scrapped a promised First Hill Station.

Now, however, the university will enjoy two stations, at either end of campus, instead of the lone stop on the 1996 map.

The Northgate extension finally won funding in 2008, as another recession approached and a combined roads and transit measure had just failed. While the transit-board chair, then-Seattle Mayor Greg Nickels, persuaded a squeamish board to propose a transit-only sales tax, arguing it would create construction jobs. Sound Transit 2 rode the big presidential-year voter turnout to victory.

The ST2 campaign “was the most fun I had in politics in my public life,” Nickels recalled. “Putting it on the ballot and passing it, even though there was no appetite in the business and political community, was great.”

Though connections between Northgate, downtown and Seattle-Tacoma International Airport are cause to celebrate, that milestone shouldn’t become a political springboard for higher Sound Transit taxes or rail megaprojects to less-populated areas, said Doug MacDonald, retired state transportation secretary turned pedestrian advocate.

He points to bad cost estimates from the 2016 Sound Transit 3 ballot measure and to delays reaching destinations such as Everett and West Seattle. The agency would siphon tens of billions of taxpayer dollars while roads and bridges crumble and buses are underfunded, he said.

ST3 was the nation’s most expensive local transit tax measure, yet the agency reports a long-term $6.5 billion shortfall, caused mainly by soaring real estate costs and alignment options the agency didn’t foresee. Leaders warn they must delay or trim projects without new money sources.

“At some point, when all the confetti is swept up at Northgate, and the realization that Biden infrastructure money won’t bail them out, it will become apparent that Sound Transit 3 as promised to the voters is probably undeliverable,” predicted MacDonald.

Some pro-rail advocates see this fall’s opening as fuel for a campaign to fully fund West Seattle, Ballard and additional cross-city trains.

“People can see it operate, they can use it, and they know that if it would serve their neighborhoods, they would be better off,” said transit supporter Andrew Villeneuve, founder of the nonprofit Northwest Progressive Institute.

The group’s polling showed 76% support for a Seattle-only funding measure. The survey didn’t describe details, but Villeneuve recommends some sort of wealth-based tax. Regressive sales taxes, including transit, already total 10.25% in Seattle.

King County Executive Dow Constantine, who once framed ST3 as “an ambitious plan for an ambitious region,” agrees the Northgate rail line opening will build political momentum. Instead of calling for a citizen tax vote, he suggests pressing the state Legislature to unlock new financing methods for transit.

“The bigger question is, can you create a tax system for transportation and for government broadly that is more fair and adequate for the needs of the people?” Constantine said.

Whether or not taxes rise again, more stations are coming to Lynnwood, Redmond and Federal Way, where construction is on pace to finish by 2024.

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