Light rail hits minor problems

The Seattle light rail transit, which carries passengers from Westlake in Seattle to International Blvd. in Tukwila, has been operational for over a week now, but it has not been a completely smooth ride.

For four decades, the project was a subject of controversy to the Washington State Dept. of Transportation. This was, in part, due to the mixed reaction the idea received from the general public.

“We often talk about Seattle’s inability to act – we spend a long time talking, we can’t agree on the best course of action, an infrastructure project in one part of the city often elicits a “what does it do for me?” attitude,” said Ben Schiendelman, a Seattleite, in a blog about the new transportation.

Nevertheless, after six years of development, the light rail service became functional on July 18, 2009.

On the light rail’s opening day, Sound Transit reported that trains carried 45,000 riders- many clapping or taking photos. Trains were running every 7 ½ minutes. An extra two-car train was used at the end of the day though, as Seattle struggled to deal with the 65,000 fans that flocked to Qwest Field to watch The Seattle Sounders F.C. take on Chelsea F.C.

All went to plan during the rail’s debut appearances, and passengers and staff were relieved.

Ric Ilgenfritz, Sound Transit’s planning and policy director, told the Seattle Times that it was a “Goldilocks day,” and that his two worst nightmares- too little or too many people showing up- were not realized.

The longest ride between stations is no more than 35 minutes, but no matter how fast a journey may be, the designers and planners at sound transit went out of their way to make the ride as smooth and picturesque as possible.

The Beacon Hill Stop lays sixteen stories underground and passengers take one of four elevators to the train platform where they can pass the time admiring artwork. When the train departs, thin slits of light stretch out at high speed to appear as over sized playing cards at Beacon Hill Tunnel, and the eastward view out of the Tukwila stop will, on clear days, reveal a view of Mt. Rainier.

In the six years it has taken for this project to finalize, there have been setbacks. A large portion of the south end runs parallel to Martin Luther King Blvd. at street level. During train trials there were three incidents involving trains and traffic, and two cars were hit. Also, the display boards at the individual stations don’t say when the next train will be coming, a feature provided at train stops just about everywhere.

On July 23, the light rail faced its biggest setback, making what had been a somewhat smooth ride, a little uncomfortable for some passengers. After an electrical failure in The Pioneer Square station, some travelers on last Thursday’s transit service were forced to wait 90 minutes before power returned to the downtown control system.

While no passengers were injured, the electrical failure, which occurred between 9:30 a.m. and 11:00 a.m, did inconvenience many commuters.

Jehron Thogersen, a traveler during the failure, told KING5 that while he realized that the light rail is still ironing out some wrinkles, “Well it kind of spoiled my day.”

Despite the minor setbacks, the light rail system has been praised by users, especially in relation to the planning that has proceeded the rail’s opening week.

“They’ve really thought about it this time. I mean, it’s not like the monorail- they really want this to be used as a serious form of transportation, and have left room to expand.” Said Joe Lithgan, a Seattleite and recent passenger on the light rail.

The planning behind the light rail accounts for the future, too. The train stations are all twice as long as the number of cars in anticipation of increased demand, leaving the option to add more train cars if needed.

The light rail is destined to alleviate traffic, especially thanks to the international district stop which will be used mainly by people travelling to and from sporting events at Safeco Field and Qwest Stadium.

This is welcomed after so many county officials staked their reputations on the project back in 2001, including Ron Sims, Deputy Secretary of the United States Department of Housing and Urban Development.

On the nights when the Sounders play, the whole line is full of Sounders fans, clearly helping the city’s traffic situation and the environment. The congestion that was typically seen on I-90 or I-5 on a game night will now be less of a problem.

It is fair to predict that the average Joe will use the light rail too, or at least the average dude. Last Tuesday, Jeff “The Dude” Dowd, used the transportation after a crowd of fans accompanied him to Tukwila for a game of bowling.

Dowd, who was the inspiration for the Coen brother’s Jeff “The Dude” in “The Big Lebowski,” was in Seattle for a celebration of the film. Dowd, who was once a University of Washington student, told The Seattle Times that bowling offered him the chance to try out the area’s new mass-transit system, something he is a strong supporter of.

The light rail project is all part of what Sound Transit is calling “Sound Transit 2”. Starting with increased express bus routes in early 2009, continuing with the opening of the light rail system, Sound Transit 2 is scheduled to have all its projects completed in 2023.