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Joy ride

Light rail: 'smart' planning emphasizes putting people near transit Credit: Sound Transit

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.

The ride through the Rainier Valley was fascinating to me, partly because I grew up there. Light rail takes the route we used to take to Sea-Tac in the days before I-5: South on (then) Empire Way, then cross over near the old Duwamish Drive-in Theater, then up Highway 99 to the airport. Light rail follows MLK, then crosses over, but instead of going to 99 it swings south along I-5 to Tukwila.

When you get the current last stop, Tuck-wheela, there’s a tall modern station surrounded by a parking lot. The airport is within sight, and you can see the tail fins of jetliners sticking above the horizon, like shark fins on the sea. This station has artwork that attempts to tie it into the community, including quotes from locals about how they feel about Tukwila. A giant molecular model hangs from the ceiling. An electronic sign says, “Welcome to Tukwila,” and I realized that was the first time anyone has ever welcomed me there. I’ve certainly never felt like a grateful guest.

The Rainier Valley ride was a kind of revelation. Headed south, you burst out of Beacon Hill near McClellan Street. I used to walk down McClellan each day after school at Asa Mercer, so it’s familiar turf. But the rail view gives you such a different angle. The train is elevated here. You pass the site of the old Sicks Stadium at Rainier and McClellan where the legendary Rainiers and short-lived Pilots once played (along with Hendrix, Joplin, and Elvis).

The stadium was shamefully torn down decades ago, replaced with a big box now housing a Lowes. But you’d hardly know it: the box is now surrounded by a veritable forest of street trees. The neighborhood monument that sticks out dramatically is Franklin High School, the Beaux Arts anchor to this neighborhood. The view makes Franklin seem more prominent, its exterior restoration more splendid.

When Vancouver BC urbanist Gordon Price was in town recently, he extolled Seattle has a “city in three dimensions,” meaning that unlike flat cities, we have the advantage of views and changing vantage points. The light rail line takes advantage of that: it’s underground, at the surface, and elevated when need be. You really do get a different view of the city, cruising through and over areas most of us don’t visit often, from Tukwila to the Industrial district, to Hillman City.

That’s one of the intriguing social prospects of the light rail line: it makes visible parts of the city that are often ignored. The trek down MLK, passing the new housing development, the old junkyards, the heavy machinery, the chain-link fence neighborhoods with “beware of the dog” signs and cars parked in the yard, the immigrant enclaves, the strange ethnic churches, the decaying strip malls — it helps put a big chunk of Seattle onto the visible map, at the very least for the tens of thousands of folks who will be taking light rail to the airport and might never otherwise see this part of the city.

We used to drive this route to Sea-Tac until I-5 was built. Even though I lived in the Valley, the southern reaches of MLK became remote, detached, invisible. This has long been the complaint: that most of the South End’s neighborhoods have been neglected and ignored. Putting light rail here was part of a deliberate strategy to revitalize the area economically, but by putting it above ground, instead of below, it helps make it all more present, more part of everyday Seattle.

And in this sense, you can see how some might claim that the rail line gives us big league status: not for its transportation efficiencies (or not), but because the view of the city is more like what you get when you enter a large eastern city by surface rail. You see its backyards and brickyards, its tenements, its workaday self. You spy into homes and businesses at the height of dream-flight, and see how diverse and messy cities are.

Even for people who know the city, there will be discoveries. I spotted an Elks Lodge on MLK I never noticed, and what must be the last big garden or farm near Cloverdale. I saw a Seattle Police car behind a warehouse and wondered what it was doing there, then nearby saw the Seattle Police Athletic Association. I spotted a sign for a long-gone business: Empire Lumber, dating from the days when lumber yards filled the valley, one of the last areas to be logged. A city of details.

Long-term, areas around the light rail line will change and adapt. That will bring riders. But I think Seattleites will also find uses for the new train. Going to the airport is a no-brainer. Certainly, I could use it when going to a Seahawks or Mariners game because it’s an easy transfer to rail from my bus. The stations will also make great jumping off points for neighborhood walks. I also think I’ll want another of those pork sandwiches with the French bread and hot peppers near Othello station. I’m definitely going back.

All of this demonstrates, at least in this heady honeymoon period with light rail, something that’s different from the bus. I find myself now of thinking of reasons to ride the train.

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