From the Roots | Sound Transit keeps pushing on, despite recession

Sound Transit will officially inaugurate service at its new Mountlake Terrace highway station at 236th Street Southwest on March 20 in Snohomish County.

Sound Transit will officially inaugurate service at its new Mountlake Terrace highway station at 236th Street Southwest on March 20 in Snohomish County. The new station, which sits in the Interstate 5 median, is one of the last capital projects planned as part of Sound Move – the regional transit system approved by voters in November 1996. It includes several bus bays, platforms for riders with weather shielding, and glass walls to reduce noise pollution. It also features a covered pedestrian bridge, built to connect the station to the third floor of the Mountlake Terrace Transit Center.

Bus service is being expanded in conjunction with the new station; Sound Transit will soon operate a route linking Mountlake Terrace and Seattle seven days a week rather than only on weekdays.

The completion of the facility marks a watershed moment for Sound Transit. After 15 years, the agency has finally finished all of its express bus capital projects.

Delivering on the promises it made to voters back in the 1990s has not been easy. Sound Transit’s early years were plagued with difficulties. Substandard planning and poor management led to the admission that the agency didn’t have the resources to execute on its vision. There were only enough funds to build part of what had been promised.

Initially, that revelation weakened Sound Transit. Criticism intensified by significant magnitudes, turnover increased as people left the agency, and public perception became more negative.

But new leadership was brought in that was determined to learn from the hardships. Since the early 2000s, under CEO Joni Earl, Sound Transit has completely turned itself around. The values of accountability and responsibility are now prized within the agency; corner-cutting is seen as taboo. The staff and the federated board — comprised of elected leaders from Puget Sound cities and counties, are committed to an internal motto of “under-promising and over-delivering” to avoid the mistakes of the past.

These days, Sound Transit’s biggest challenge is coping with the Great Recession, not dealing with self-inflected woes. Despite the recession, however, it is steadily pushing forward, working to finish up the last of the Sound Move projects so it can turn its full attention to the projects voters authorized and approved in 2008 as part of Sound Transit 2 (including East Link, which will bring light rail to the Eastside).

Last week, Sound Transit offered reporters and columnists a look at the two boring machines that will be tunneling under Capitol Hill and Montlake during the next few years. The machines, nicknamed “Balto” and “Togo,” will be trucked from Pierce County (where they are undergoing final assembly and testing) to the University of Washington. There, they will begin digging their way under Montlake to the Capitol Hill Station.

The tunnels they excavate will ultimately carry Link light rail trains between the University District and downtown Seattle, allowing riders to move between the two neighborhoods without having to worry about getting stuck in traffic. The University Link project is scheduled to be completed sometime in 2016, when Sound Transit will mark its 20th anniversary.

Meanwhile, work continues on another Sound Move project – the Lakewood Sounder extension, which will expand commuter rail service in Pierce County to two more stations (South Tacoma and Lakewood). The stations are already complete and track work is expected to wrap up in late 2012, with service beginning shortly thereafter.

At its Web site, Sound Transit maintains an impressive completed project archive, which shows exactly what it has accomplished during the last 15 years. The mix of projects is significant, and includes train stations, park and ride lots, transit centers, and direct access ramps as well as HOV enhancements.

Sound Transit today operates nearly two dozen Express bus routes, two Sounder lines, the Tacoma Link streetcar, and Central Link light rail. Service continues to expand incrementally as the agency finishes new stations (like Mountlake Terrace) and adds more vehicles to its fleet.

We badly need the regional transit system that Sound Transit is building. In saying yes to Sound Move in 1996 and Sound Transit 2 in 2008, voters said clearly that they want options. When everybody is forced to drive, nobody wins. The folks at Sound Transit know this. That’s why they’re doing their best to reduce congestion and improve mobility for all of us. Thanks to them, we’re finally in the process of getting a transit system that we can be proud of.

Andrew Villeneuve, a 2005 Redmond High graduate, is the founder and executive director of the Northwest Progressive Institute, a Redmond-based grassroots organization. Villeneuve can be reached at andrew@nwprogressive.org.


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