For Jim Ellis, this has been a long time coming. It was back in 1968 that Ellis and others brought the possibility of light rail to Seattle voters. It's only now -- mid-July 2009 -- that a light rail system has seen completion. But Ellis, 87, has no quarrel with the 41-year delay because, sometimes, you just have to wait.
"The important part is we're not dead," says Ellis.
Indeed, at the July 17 dignitary commemoration of the local system, staged on the mezzanine level at Westlake Station, the scene pulses with life. More than 250 people -- politicians in suits or skirt sets, newscasters in silk dresses and high-heeled shoes, cameramen in t-shirts, shorts and sandals -- mill about, a good number doing their best to wave away the heat. Ellis, practically in the crowd's center, doesn't seem to mind.
Just outside the media cordon stands Arthur Guzzetti, vice president for policy of the American Public Transportation Association, in Washington, D.C. "There are 35 light-rail systems in the country," Guzzetti says, including Portland, San Diego and, last December, Phoenix. What's unique about the local system, he suggests, is the inclusion of the bus component. By that, he means the tunnel, one floor below, where light rail cars will share the same surface as Metro buses, before exiting near Safeco Field and Qwest stadium.
Ellis, who has been receiving congratulatory words from an ever-changing group of attendees, sits in a reserved section, as a line of speakers take the podium: Mayor Greg Nickels, Sen. Patty Murray, Peter Rogoff, from the Federal Transit Administration. As the politicians address the crowd, a few acknowledge Ellis and his commitment to rapid transit.
Some four decades ago, Ellis helped to craft a package of 12 bond propositions known as Forward Thrust. Presented to voters in February 1968, more than half passed, including those for the development of the Kingdome, a system of city parks and trails -- think Gas Works, Freeway and the Burke-Gilman -- and improvements to Sea-Tac Airport. One measure that didn't would have paved the way for a rapid-transit system.
The transit measure needed 60 percent voter approval and, says Ellis, five to six weeks prior to the vote, it seemed on track to win. But then, he says, "General Motors decided they wanted to stop it."
Ellis says the automotive company employed a simple strategy: Inside a Plexiglas box sat a chrome-plated engine. "It was very beautiful," remembers Ellis. Hauled around on a trailer and placed throughout the city, the device was hailed, he says, as "the engine of the future." Onlookers, cautioned to forgo the proposed streetcars, which symbolized the old, were encouraged to vote down transit. Barely 51 percent of voters approved the measure, 9 percent short of its goal.
After the last of seven speakers alights from the podium, attendees file downstairs to the platform. The white lights of the train, deep in the recesses of the tunnel, illumine the tracks. When it pulls up, a cheer rings the air. Ellis gets lost in the crowd. A pair of young, black preteens stare as the two 95-ft. cars fill, the doors slide shut and the train pulls away.
On board, Richard Chapin, chair of the Sound Transit Citizen Oversight Panel, takes a seat. He smiles once the train exits the tunnel and enters the daylight of Fifth Avenue S. As the train courses up an elevated track, en route to the tunnel bored into Beacon Hill, he turns to survey the skyline of the city. Then the windows go dark as the train enters the tunnel.
The 14-mile line cost $2.3 billion. During construction, in February 2007, a worker died in the Beacon Hill tunnel, when he was thrown or jumped from a moving locomotive that crashed into a parked train. ["Light rail builder contests fine for accident," RC, March 25-31, 2009.] Chapin acknowledges him as the train stops at the Beacon Hill station.
Onward to Mt. Baker station, and Columbia City and Othello. Past the Rainier Beach stop, the train seems to levitate on an elevated track, the car rocking. "You can feel the vibration," Chapin says. Mt. Rainier sits outside the eastern window.
As the train approaches the Tukwila station, Chapin indicates the houses on the ground with his chin. He says, "This must be where people were complaining about the noise." On July 5, the Seattle Times reported that some Tukwila residents have voiced concern about screeching wheels as trains pull into the station.
Tukwila stands as the only station out of 12 with on-site parking, enough for 600 vehicles. "The challenge," says Chapin, "in the suburbs, [is] figuring out a way to get people from their houses to the light rail station without using an automobile."
Passengers disembark and mill around the elevated station. The ping of bells sends them back aboard.
In the second car, back into town, the excitement of riding the train remains high. People with Blackberrys send texts; others with iPhones snap pictures.
Looking out of the window is Ralph Shape, mayor of Seatac. By year's end, the light rail will extend to his city, granting access to the airport, a trip estimated to take 36 minutes from Westlake.
Walking down the aisle, shaking hands, comes City Councilmember Jan Drago. "Everybody running for office is on the train," Shape says, deadpan. Along with Drago, who's vying for mayor against Nickels, King County Executive hopefuls Dow Constantine, Larry Phillips and Ross Hunter converse with fellow passengers.
Sound Transit intends to extend the line to Capitol Hill and Husky Stadium by 2016. Long-range plans -- with a projected deadline of 2030 -- will encompass Federal Way to the south and Lynnwood to the north.
Exiting the Beacon Hill tunnel, the train surfs above I-5, clogged with Friday afternoon traffic. Ellis notes that, while there's "a lot of people bitching about the traffic all the time," the congestion occurs mostly during rush hour. "We got lots of room on the highway at midnight," he adds.
For the daylight hours, he views the light rail system as a clear necessity, one whose time has come. And while he could get riled up about the decades that passed before the idea solidified into reality, he opts for a different tack. "I don't choose to make war," he says. "I'm not going to do anything but celebrate."