On March 19, 2016, Sound Transit begins Link light-rail service to Capitol Hill and the University of Washington (UW), extending the Link line, which had opened in 2009 between downtown Seattle and Sea-Tac Airport in south King County, three miles north. The opening is celebrated with a ribbon-cutting at the Capitol Hill Station while a countdown ceremony is held simultaneously at the University of Washington Station. Crowds at both stations listen to live music and take free rides on the new route, which tunnels from the Westlake Center station in downtown Seattle to UW's Husky Stadium. Riders are impressed with the speed of the trains, which zip from downtown to the stadium in about eight minutes. The Seattle Times says the opening marks "a new era for transit for the congested Seattle area" (Beekman). It is, in essence, Seattle's first subway route. (Most of the 15-mile light-rail line running south from downtown to the airport is at ground level or elevated.) The University Link will initiate a boom in light-rail ridership.
Long Wait for the Train
Riders had been awaiting this day for two decades. The route from downtown to UW had been part of the original Sound Move light-rail plan approved by voters in 1996. It was originally scheduled for completion in 2006. Yet construction was delayed by years of turmoil.
In late 2000, the University Link route was responsible for the biggest crisis in Sound Transit's history. When Sound Transit officials opened bids for construction of the University Link's twin tunnels, running beneath Capitol Hill northeast of downtown Seattle, the low bid was for $728 million, a whopping $171 million over the $557 million budget. This was vastly more than Sound Transit could afford, and the board had to immediately put the tunnel project on hold and push the entire Link completion date back at least to 2009. Even worse, a subsequent internal review showed that Sound Transit had severely underestimated costs not just for the tunnel, but for the entire Link scheme. The true Link price tag was $3.6 billion, not $2.5 billion.
This marked the beginning of what some Sound Transit officials would later call the Dark Days. The financial crisis threatened not only University Link but also the viability of Sound Transit itself, because alarmed federal officials put the agency's vital federal grants on hold. Joni Earl (b. 1953), Sound Transit's then-new executive director, realized that the agency did not have enough money to build the entire approved Link route, but it had enough money to build half of it. So she divided the Link project into two parts: Central Link, running between Sea-Tac Airport in south King County and downtown Seattle, and North Link (later called University Link). The Sound Transit board had to choose one, but not both, to finish by 2009. The board chose the Central Link, largely because it did not have the problematic tunnels. The federal government eventually came through with the grants, and the Central Link line was completed in 2009.
Meanwhile, in 2008 voters had approved a new $17.9 billion measure called Sound Transit 2, which provided funds to complete University Link (and an extension all the way north to Lynnwood in Snohomish County south of Everett.) By this time, Sound Transit planners had moved the tunnel route slightly to the east so it went under the Montlake Cut, avoiding one of the problems that had caused the initial bids to come in so high: "tricky soils" under Portage Bay (Kershner). The completion date was set for late 2016.
Bids for the tunnel work were opened in 2009 -- and this time, to Sound Transit's relief, they were well below estimates. Boring of the twin tunnels began in May 2011. In November 2013, Sound Transit announced that University Link was ahead of schedule and under budget -- and would open six months early, in March 2016.
For these reasons, the opening day of the University Link line released years of pent-up tension and frustration. On Saturday morning, March 19, confetti showered down on dignitaries as they cut the ceremonial ribbon at the Capitol Hill Station. Ceremonies were also held at the same time at the University of Washington Station. Riders thronged into both stations for free rides. "We were absolutely flying," a first-day rider said (Beekman).
King County Executive and Sound Transit board chair Dow Constantine (b. 1961) said the opening showed that "the agency has matured and we've gotten better and better at delivering these projects" ("University Link Light Rail Opens"). One rider told a reporter that when he moved to Capitol Hill 13 years ago, Link had been just a "little pipe dream" ("University Link Light Rail Opens"). Now that pipe dream had been converted into two 3.15-mile tunnels burrowing 300 feet below the surface at their deepest point under Volunteer Park on north Capitol Hill.
Sound Transit had estimated that the University Link opening would boost Link's average weekday ridership from about 35,000 to 51,800 by the end of 2016. However, in the first month, Link was already beating this projection, averaging close to 60,000 riders per weekday. Within a week of the opening ceremony, Sound Transit had to put longer trains into service to handle the demand.
The demand would eventually exceed Sound Transit's long-term projections, as well. Planners estimated that the University Link would double Link ridership to more than 70,000 riders by 2020. In fact, by 2018 average Link weekday ridership had already reached 81,000. These statistics helped put to rest one longstanding criticism of Sound Transit's light-rail plans. Naysayers had persistently predicted that ridership would be anemic. "They were wrong when they said it, and they're wrong now," former King County Executive and Sound Transit Board chair Ron Sims (b. 1948) declared in 2018 (Sims interview).
Sims said that University Link provided something fundamental: affordable access to education. Peter Rogoff (b. 1960), who succeeded Earl as Sound Transit's executive director, said it made a difference in other ways as well. He sometimes worked at the University Station as a volunteer guide during UW football games, and fans told him that they had once sat in cars for hours getting in and out of parking lots. But now they were astonished at getting "that many hours of their weekend back" (Rogoff interview).
The University Link had always been intended as just the beginning of a much longer route north from downtown Seattle. As of 2019, Sound Transit was constructing an extension of the line, mostly underground, to Northgate in North Seattle with a projected completion date of 2021. Plans called for the line to continue above ground to Lynnwood by 2024 and to Everett by 2036.