Though Seattle’s light rail project has more in common with Vancouver’s light-metro system, it does have portions running on city streets. Through the Duwamish River valley, it operates as a light-metro, running on a 8 km. viaduct.
As soon as light-rail trains head south out of Seattle, leaving the streets of Rainier Valley, the ride becomes more exhilarating.
Five miles of nonstop trackway allow speeds of up to 55 mph, next to highways and around banked curves. Blue lights on the Duwamish River bridge trip on, as a work of public art, when the train crosses.
Finally the train climbs to Tukwila International Boulevard Station, where the V-shaped roof creates a landmark. The angular design evokes “airplanes, liftoff, the idea of elevation, the slope and wing of airplanes,” in the words of its architect, David Hewitt, of Seattle.
On a clear day, from the 51-foot-high boarding platform atop a hill, riders can see Mount Baker, then turn toward the control tower of Seattle-Tacoma International Airport.
With this station, Sound Transit aimed to create a beacon, full of sculpture and lit from within. Detractors call it a Taj Mahal. Politicians on the transit board hoped the three-level station and tracks along the freeway, would convince taxpayers the agency could finish the job, after its financial near-meltdown years ago.
Unlike other stations, which rely on walk-ups and feeder buses, this one could lure some motorists off the highways, after the first 14 miles of track open July 18. Until an airport station opens this winter, Tukwila is the southern terminus of the line that starts at Westlake Center.
This stop provides the line’s only park-and-ride lot, with 600 free spaces, a reasonable stopover for commuters from SeaTac, Burien and Des Moines, or sports fans heading to Sodo. Parking is free but limited to 24 hours.
Chances are good the lot will overflow in the near future, as happened to Sounder commuter-rail stations a few miles east. Transit-board members don’t have a strategy yet, though some have hinted at user fees or carpooling incentives for Sounder lots someday.
Next year, the future RapidRide A line from Federal Way and other buses will pick up passengers on a wide two-lane roadway under the mezzanine. Lines will be rerouted to reach the station from Burien, White Center and Southcenter.
Off to the side, a drop-off area serves taxis and kiss-and-ride users, but getting there requires maneuvering through rows of parking. A nifty stairway connects to the sidewalk of International Boulevard. The station entry itself is enormous; riders take escalators past yellow-painted steel beams to the mezzanine and boarding platforms.
Construction on the huge station and mostly elevated trackway was remarkably smooth. A total 2,457 hollow guideway segments were trucked here from Cashmere, Chelan County, raised by a gantry, then cinched together in a series — like a box of tightly scrunched doughnuts — to form 182 spans. Still, there have been controversies:
• Early this decade, the city of Tukwila threatened to withhold permits to build the segment, after Sound Transit refused to spend more money to reach Westfield Southcenter mall.
• A subcontractor pleaded guilty to misrepresenting the strength of steel casings, wrapped around column foundations. Fortunately, engineering reviews concluded it was not a significant flaw and columns would still withstand a severe earthquake.
• Neighbors complained this summer of the screech caused by steel wheels on elevated tracks. Sound Transit has ordered lubricants and will apply them to the rails in the next few days, spokesman Bruce Gray said.
• As light-rail opponent Emory Bundy and others have noted, the 36-minute ride from Westlake Center to the airport, via Rainier Valley and Tukwila, is longer than the 194 bus, scheduled to take 28 minutes using freeway HOV lanes. Next year the 194 will be dropped, so transit riders heading to the airport will have to take a train.
Sound Transit argues Link runs more often than a bus; it saves time for people who live in the Valley; and trains are immune from airport-traffic tie-ups. Think Thanksgiving week.
The station appears isolated amid parking lots and low-rise drive-up businesses, but several apartments sit a short walk downhill.
And in the future, the adjoining city of SeaTac intends to redevelop the west side of International Boulevard for retailers, offices and housing in buildings eight stories high, along with a plaza, and town homes on the back streets, attracting up to 4,000 residents.
“We would love to see that built out as an international district, with a variety of shops,” said SeaTac City Manager Craig Ward.
Mike Lindblom Seattle Times