From columnist Danny Westneat in the Seattle Times:
Nine years ago, I wrote a column predicting, unambiguously, “Light rail: We will love it.” …
Reality turned out to be more complicated. Seattle not only didn’t love light rail. At first we barely noticed it.
We finally opened a rail line seven years ago, in 2009 — after debating it off and on for half a century. But six months in, the 14-mile line, built for $2.3 billion and years late, was carrying only about 14,000 riders a day. There are bus routes with that many passengers. … The financials weren’t so hot, either, as fares covered only about 25 percent of the operating cost (the conservative goal had been 40 percent).
Light rail wasn’t a dud. But it hadn’t become a central feature in the city.
It sure feels like that has all suddenly changed. …
On Monday, Sound Transit announced that light-rail ridership has just surged 83 percent. That’s not a typo. The use of rail nearly doubled, from about 36,000 per day last May to more than 65,000 per day this May.
The obvious cause is that 20 years after the voters approved it, the agency finally built two stations where people really want to go — Capitol Hill and UW.
Suddenly we have vaulted into the top 10 in the country in light-rail ridership. … Plus: In May the trains earned 51 percent of their operating costs back in fares, a doubling of the rate from last year. That’s a major rider endorsement of the system.
What is going on?
The transportation planning answer is that Capitol Hill and UW were considered the two most desirable mass-transit markets in the nation that weren’t already served by subway or rail. So putting train stops there was a no-brainer. (This makes it even more of a head-banger that it took us so long to do it!) …
A tipping point has been reached, it seems to me. The train is no longer an academic urbanist talking point, or something like broccoli that we know is supposed to be good for us. The recalcitrant city now is embracing rail with a zeal that seems to have startled even Sound Transit.
It took damn near 50 years of arguing about it. But we finally love it.