On the first fare-day of Sound Transit's Link Light Rail line, I took the afternoon to try out the system. It turned into an unexpected pleasure.
First stop was the Metro center at Westlake to pick up an Orca card, which can be used to pay fares on regional buses, rail, and ferries. The line at the booth was slow and most of the folks were there to ask questions, like was their Metro Pass good on the train, etc.
Apparently, Metro's employees aren't all fully trained yet about the new light rail line. One was asked by a tourist where to get the train to Sea-Tac. She was curtly told that the train didn't go to Sea-Tac yet. Period. The poor woman was about to walk away when she turned and asked, "What about Tuck-wheela?" Another Metro staffer came over and told her where to catch the train to Tukwila, but there was no information given about how to catch the shuttle to the airport. The woman did catch the train, however.
Many riders were baffled about the fare system. Sound Transit had helpers at the ticket machines, but on my rides, no ticket-checkers were in evidence. Orca card holders "tap" the card at the scanner on the station platform, then do it again when they get off. Pay the fare and the card also acts like a bus transfer, as it did for my last leg home. Staffers at the stations are there to help people figure out what to do, but I suspect there were a good number of people riding the train who had not paid and expected to see a conductor.
The ride is smooth and quiet. Everything's new, of course, and clean; so are the stations, with bright paint and spiffy art in their pre-graffiti glory. The stations are not cookie cutter. The underground stop at Beacon Hill has a kind of under-sea theme. Illuminated sculptures resembling colorful deep sea creatures or alien life forms hang from the ceiling over the platform, and plastic bubbles with colorful lights greet you near the elevators. Perhaps Captain Nemo designed it.
You take the elevator to the surface and the Beacon Hill station above ground is a brick box of the building that resembles something like an old 1930s brick fire house. At the Columbia City stop, which is at the surface level on Martin Luther King Way, you can see Craftsman-style details in the pillars. The elevated station at Mount Baker is thoroughly modernist. The variety of the stations makes some of the major stops distinctive and helps give the light rail line a kind of personality. In other words, the line itself has some character. The line is also in its Rem Koolhaas library phase, where many, perhaps most, of the customers are looky-loos.
Some stations are strictly utilitarian. As a casual passenger, there's not much to see at SoDo station, and not much reason to get off unless you work for the Postal Service, the School District, or at Starbucks HQ. But contrast the industrial starkness of SoDo with all the intriguing street-level shops and restaurants around Othello Station. Along MLK between Othello and Myrtle, the street is lined with shops and strip malls with Vietnamese restaurants, Mexican taquerias, Asian laundries, beauty salons, and groceries selling halal meats. The Seattle Times recently suggested that this area was a "blank slate," and it's true there is vacant land nearby that will be developed. But it's hardly a blank slate, it's a thriving community with a Little Saigon feel. It's more about what to build on (and not destroy) rather than what to create from scratch.
For Seattleites who rarely get down to this part of the Rainier Valley, I predict Othello will become a destination, even a place for a quick lunch for downtown workers who need a break. You can get there, have lunch, and be back downtown in less than an hour. I got off here and popped into the Huong Viet Cafe and bought a delicious pork sandwich. If I worked downtown, I might to that regularly.
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