Is Light Rail the missing link?

One of 2005's biggest local events will be the visible start of construction on Sound Transit's Link light rail system. There's been a lot of work done already-utilities have been relocated, construction staging areas have been set up, test holes have been bored on Beacon Hill.

But in the spring of '05, it'll all step up. Nine years after voters originally approved the system, it'll finally seem "real." What's now called the "Bus Tunnel" downtown will be refitted with new rail tracks. (The tracks installed when the tunnel was originally built have been deemed unusable.) One block of the tunnel, at Eighth Avenue and Pine Street, will be re-dug, adding a turn-off spur for the trains. This summer, the main Beacon Hill tunnel digging will start. This fall, crews will start to build surface-level and elevated track segments in south Seattle and Tukwila.

If all goes well, trains will head from the Convention Center to the airport in four to five years.

It'll take a little longer before you can catch a Link train on Capitol Hill. But at least that part's still figuratively "on track."

Sound Transit bureaucrats are currently working on a "final supplemental environmental impact statement." Sometime this summer, they expect to decide on a final route. Major construction won't start until 2007 or maybe even 2008. Finally, perhaps as early as 2013 or as late as 2015, you'll be able to enter a subway station on or near Broadway and head out on a swift, quiet, conveniently scheduled train to First Hill, downtown, and points south, or head north as far as Northgate (or maybe just as far as the UW campus, depending on ST's budgetary situation).

So, why should you care about it now?

For one thing, the final decisions about the line are about to be made. Just knowing exactly where the stations are going to be, and where long-term construction disruptions will occur, will affect property values, parking availability and more.

And then, once it's all more or less up and running, life on the Hill will change in both overt and subtle ways.

Most modern urban transit systems are devised with commuting as their primary intended use. Get the office crowd into town in the morning and back home at night.

But Capitol Hill residents are already "in town." And, aside from Seattle Central Community College and Group Health, the neighborhood has few large-scale employers. But light rail will strengthen two of the Hill's biggest assets:

Asset No. 1: Link will enhance the area's status as a "destination" area for entertainment and shopping. Live theaters, cinemas, restaurants, and "funky" retail shops will likely benefit from the increased foot traffic. Bars and nightclubs will attract more customers who won't have to drive home. Which leads to...

Asset No.2: Link will make car-free life more feasible. This effect has many possible repercussions, depending on who you are. If you're a merchant, you might worry a little less about off-street parking or the lack of same. If you're an apartment owner, you can make even grander claims about your building being within a quick stroll from everything.

If you're an apartment tenant, you might end up paying more rent in return for such convenience.

But before you move out in panic, or buy up property in hope, remember: Long before Link makes car-free life easier on the Hill, Link will make car-free life more feasible in neighborhoods further away from downtown. Beacon Hill and the Rainier Valley will be Link-ed up years before Cap-itol Hill and First Hill are. They'll have the E-Z access to the stadiums, the airport, and Southcenter Mall; while you'll still have to hoof it or bus it or park-n'-ride it, at least part of the way. For a while, these neighborhoods might drain some of Capitol Hill's "funkiness," and some of its real estate prices.

So, as you navigate the lane closures by Eighth and Pine these next few months, just remind yourself even bigger traffic changes are to come.

Capitol Hill resident Clark Humphrey's column appears in the first issue of each month. He can be reached at editor@

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