The LINK to a more sustainable region

The opening of the Sound Transit Central Link Light Rail last week has caused me to both reflect and to look ahead.

Link Light Rail was the project that brought me to Seattle. That was ten years ago. VIA was retained by Sound Transit to develop the design concepts for Capitol and First Hill Stations and to develop the system wide architectural standards for Link.

When we joined the project the engineering team had already been working on the project for a year and a half. In those early days of the project the sense amongst the design team was that Link Light Rail was going to be a catalyst for Seattle to become a more sustainable, more livable, less car dominated city. I remember thinking at the time that we would be riding Link from the University to the Airport sometime in 2006. That was before everything that possibly could go wrong went wrong.

It is hard to fathom how a transit system could take so long to conceive, build and make operational; eleven and a half years from design start to opening day of Central Link; and that’s opening day for only a part of the system that had been envisioned -- the Capitol Hill Station we were designing back in 1999 won't be finished for another seven years.

The technical parts of transit systems don't take this long to design and construct. It's the other dysfunctional stuff that takes all the time. Most of the delays for Link were due to funding and budget squabbles which thankfully Sound Transit was able to navigate through; otherwise opening day may never had happened.

How does this checkered past bode for the future at a time when we need transit more than ever? With the opening of Central Link, will Seattleites get a taste for light rail that will make them want more? Will we make demands for more service, delivered more quickly?

Based on our experience with the later phases of SkyTrain in Vancouver, I am optimistic that public demand and political will can indeed accelerate the process of getting transit built. The Millennium Line, similar in scale and complexity to the Central Link segment that opens on Saturday, took only four years to design and build, opening in 2002. As an extension to the original Expo Line it was able to build upon the public acceptance already in place for SkyTrain, and was implemented in an aggressive time frame due to a political mandate from the BC Government.

The good news is that construction is now underway on the next portion of Link called U-Link, which extends Central Link northward between Westlake Station and UW. It is slated to be completed and operational by 2016. In Vancouver, a similar LRT extension called Canada Line is opening in a month. This extension, which is more comparable in character and complexity to a North Link segment between Westlake Station and Northgate, only took seven years to complete from design start to opening day.

How can Vancouver build so much more LRT in the same time frame? In Vancouver people enjoy their LRT and want more. In Seattle, we should be able to do the same. The answer: Ride Link…and want more! Let’s celebrate last Saturday’s opening of Link and then set our sights on aggressive goals for transit in our region.

The planet deserves for our city to be more sustainable.