Updated on: 2/13/2019
Two new light rail stations in Seattle opened less than two weeks ago, but they’re already a hit among local commuters. A tunnel extension of the already existing system now takes trains as far as the University of Washington campus, with a stop in Capitol Hill. Increased ridership has already forced transit officials to add more three-car trains, instead of the usual two-car trains, to keep up with demand.
67,000 people used the train on opening day, and 47,000 commuted on it the following Monday; by Tuesday, that number had risen to 57,000. Before the opening of the new stations, weekday ridership averaged roughly 35,000 total boardings. Those ridership numbers may not even reflect full demand among commuters, as the University of Washington was on break when the station opened.
What does this mean for Seattle?
The light rail’s success—already surpassing expectations after being completed early and under budget—may be a stepping stone for future transit improvements in a city that’s changing rapidly. A planned extension to Northgate is already under way, with a boring machine two-thirds of the way done with the journey to the station at Husky Stadium. Sound Transit is already pushing for a massive light rail package that would extend rail lines to Ballard, West Seattle, Issaquah, Redmond, Bothell, and other far- commuter areas.
The expansion has not come without its critics. Business owners have complained that long-term construction at the sites of future stations has taken a slice out of their income, and the city is not making it easy to get reimbursed for the damage. Advocates for homeless and low-income residents of Seattle have pointed out that Sound Transit does not accept the special tickets that allow low-income people to ride the bus for free. The ORCA LIFT card does have a low-income option at $1.50, instead of the usual two dollars or more, but no free option is available. And two train cars were hit by gunfire in Rainier Beach; investigators are not yet sure if the shooter was aiming for something else, or expressing his or her displeasure with a passing train.
Gridlock still a problem on local streets
Light rail may be taking some commuters off the road, but traffic is still a mess on Seattle’s overcrowded streets. One blockage—a Vice President’s visit, a car crash, a man in a tree—can still slow commutes to a crawl. One study from a local transportation data firm ranked Seattle sixth on the list of America’s worst cities for traffic, with an average of 66 hours per year spent stuck in traffic. Fifteen traffic corridors in the Seattle/Tacoma/Bellevue area were pointed to as the source of the worst delays; I-5 from 130th Street to Union Street was the very worst, with up to 30 minute daily delays. Seattle’s light rail currently ends south of 40th street. The extension to Northgate will eventually take it up to around 100th street.
Light rail solutions are expected to alleviate traffic and reduce the frequency of auto accidents on our roadways, but it seems like it's taking forever to get here.