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How Sound Transit could build a promised station for SE Seattle

A Sound Transit train chugs into a station. Credit: Sound Transit

Sound Transit, the three-county rail and express-bus agency, announced some bad news, good news last month: Arbitrators had ordered it to pay $66 million in the last round of lawsuits by contractors on the South Link light rail line construction through the Rainier Valley, who sued over contaminated soils, ill-drafted design documents, and other unplanned costs. But this still left $117 million in contingency funds for the $2.4 billion route from downtown to Sea-Tac unspent. Sound Transit has taken a page from its regional predecessor Metro (now part of King County government): Lowball ’em upfront, then cushion your actual budget enough to come out smelling like a rose.

Sound Transit hasn’t yet decided how to allocate the leftover funds. They’re supposed to be spent in Seattle and North King County, the subarea whose taxpayers originally contributed them. That means they’ll probably go to the North Link extension to Northgate. But a more-focused sense of fairness would suggest looking first for unfilled needs and unfinished business in the Rainier Valley, whose merchants and residents suffered more disruption than those along other light rail routes will. (The others get discreet underground or overhead lines; the valley suffered years of construction chaos and hundreds of business closures and relocations while Martin Luther King Jr. Way was dug up and widened to accommodate a double rail line down its center.)

So I asked Julie Pham — chair of the MLK Business Association, transit rider, and managing editor of the twice-weekly Nguoi Viet Tai Bac (Northwest Vietnamese News)  — how she thought Sound Transit should spend its light-rail bonus bucks. “More help for businesses along the corridor,” she said. “They built a train to bring people down here, and people aren’t coming.” And more information — in more languages — on how to use the (for novices) cryptic and forbidding ticket system, with inspectors waiting to slap you with a $124 fine if you don’t punch your ticket or tap your ORCA card before boarding.

In a district with as many immigrants as Southeast Seattle, says Pham, “it’s amazing that the signs are only in English.” This makes the line inaccessible to those who need it most: elderly folks who don’t drive and don’t know much English. “They need lots more outreach and education.”

She may be glad to hear that Sound Transit agrees with the latter two points. “It can be a confusing system,” says ST spokesman Bruce Gray. “We’re working on ways to address that,” including presentations to schools and what he calls “a mobile ticket vending machine”: a traveling kiosk for the elderly and others to practice on.

The language question, says Gray, is more vexing: “That’s something we’ve wrestled with. There are something like 17 languages in the valley. How do you cover them all?” The obvious answer: Even if you don’t cover them all, you can still address the most widely spoken ones, perhaps Vietnamese, Spanish, and Somali for starters. Banks do it with their ATM machines. The Bartell Drugs a few blocks from the Tukwila Link station has a sign over its door proclaiming “We speak your language” — in nine languages. Surely our transit whizzes can figure this out. In fact, they already have: Sound Transit’s website offers Chinese, Korean, Russian, Spanish, Tagalog, and Vietnamese.

The agency is less likely to take up another improvement Pham endorses: a station at South Graham Street and MLK Way. This crossroads vies with the Othello/Myrtle strip as the busiest commercial junction on the route. On one corner: a shopping center anchored by the Viet-Wah Supermarket that’s so busy I’ve seen its spacious main lot completely full on a weekend, with many cars idling in wait for the next space. A McDonald’s restaurant and a drive-through Starbucks square off on other corners. Just behind sit a middle school and the region’s leading Vietnamese Buddhist temple, a major destination during festivals.

One thing’s sure: The Graham crowds will never walk from the nearest Link stations, at Othello and Alaska streets. The starions are three-quarters of a mile and a full mile away from Graham, respectively — and 1.7 miles from each other, the widest Link gap in Seattle. A rule of thumb in transit planning is that passengers won’t walk more than half a mile.

Somehow the traffic barriers thrown up by the Link light-rail line haven’t squelched all this activity; they’ve just made the snarls and the car fumes worse. Many shoppers and templegoers from the east and south suburbs might fare better taking the train; they could park free and board at the Tukwila station. There may be cultural barriers to overcome, ut that’s where education and multilingual signage come in. Send that ticket kiosk to Viet-Wah.

One thing’s sure: The Graham crowds will never walk from the nearest Link stations, at Othello and Alaska streets. The starions are  three-quarters of a mile and a full mile away from Graham, respectively — and 1.7 miles from each other, the widest Link gap in Seattle. A rule of thumb in transit planning is that passengers won’t walk more than half a mile; many can’t or won’t walk that far. By contrast, Portland’s MAX, the light-rail system that Seattle pined to emulate, spaces stations about one-half mile apart in medium-density areas like this. MAX has 85 stations on 52 miles of track, and that includes much empty space along freeways and bridges,.

Back in 1999 Sound Transit did plan a station at Graham and budgeted $5.2 million for it (by contrast, the tunnel now being dug under Capitol Hill, with one station, will cost about $1 billion). Then, to save money, the agency decided to defer the Graham station, along with another planned to go by the sports stadiums. It later reinstated the Stadium Station, but never revisited Graham Street.

Why not, I asked several Sound Transit officials when the South Link line opened in 2009? “Distance between stations is only one thing to consider,” said one. Bus access is another, and there are no connecting crosstown buses on Graham Street. A hypothetical Graham station “didn’t add ridership,” ST deputy executive director Ron Lewis told me; it would merely have served “the convenience of people already there.” So what’s wrong with passenger convenience — isn’t that what builds ridership? And why wouldn’t those who now drive to Viet-Wah, Mickey D’s, and the temple be new riders? By contrast, the Othello Station poached passengers from an express bus route that was closed when Link opened. The underground station on Capitol Hill may poach even more, if they don’t mind taking an elevator 200 feet underground to catch a train downtown.

What a Graham station would not do is spur large-scale redevelopment nearby, and that, I suspect, is what really doomed it. “Transit-oriented development” is the planners’ mantra; the otherwise-redundant South Lake Union Trolley-turned-Streetcar was built to spur SLU redevelopment. The Alaska and Othello stations abetted the redevelopment of the Rainier Vista and Holly Park housing projects. There are no such projects at Graham.

Spokesman Gray now shares one other reason Sound Transit isn’t interested in un-deferring the Graham Station: “The idea of trying to build a station today with the trains operating and two lanes of traffic on either side could be….challenging.” But Portland’s TriMet has added at least two stations to its operating MAX lines (the last, in 2010, for just $3 million plus some underground conduit work), and rebuilt and partly relocated another station. Building these entailed only “minimal impacts,” says TriMet spokesperson Mary Fetsch, and no significant closures.

Again, you’d think our transit whizzes would work this out.

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