I often read the inspiring tale of “The Little Engine That Could” to my 2-year-old granddaughter. When she gets older, I should read her Bob Wodnik’s book, “Back on Track: Sound Transit’s Fight to Save Light Rail,” because, like that children’s book, it is inspiring. Wodnik, who served as Sound Transit’s senior communications specialist from 1999 to 2017, tells the inside story of how transit advocates fought against an array of formidable critics to build the multibillion dollar, 22-mile Link light-rail train network, which now runs from UW to Angle Lake, just south of Seattle-Tacoma International Airport.
The book is not an analysis of how this system compares to other options that could have been pursued, like the monorail or bus-based rapid-transit systems — or building more highways. And it isn’t an ode to glory. Wodnik clearly reveals the internal problems that plagued the light rail’s initial debut and how it struggled to gain credibility with some of the most influential regional players, such as the Chamber of Commerce and Seattle-area media.
Building fixed-rail rapid transit is one of the most contentious decisions a city can make. It is often rejected through popular votes, as has happened in Austin, Texas; Tampa, Florida; Nashville, Tennessee; San Antonio and Seattle, where it was defeated at the election polls in 1970, 1972 and 1995.
The turning point for Seattle came in 1988, when a county-wide advisory ballot to build the light rail passed with 70% approval (but with no costs attached); in 1996, the proposal (with costs identified) passed in King, Snohomish and Pierce counties. Their county councils would have representatives on the newly created Sound Transit board, which had the authority to build light rail, commuter train and rapid-ride bus lines for the region. The bus lines became the workhorses, held out of the limelight but delivering early results. The commuter rail, although struggling for ridership, did not create opposition like the light rail.
In a suspenseful tale, Wodnik details how it took 13 years to open Link light rail, fighting off opposition from eight different organized citizen groups, seven lawsuits and sometimes the daily newspapers. Public officials, both Democrats and Republicans — including former governors Booth Gardner and John Spellman, King County council members Maggie Fimia and Rob McKenna, and two Seattle City council members, myself and and Peter Steinbrueck — severely criticized its management for lack of transparency. It is a wonder how they succeeded — Wodnik attributes it to hard work and some luck.
Sound Transit’s main challenge was getting solid and consistent information to the public. People often support the idea of rapid transit, but the details and cost dilute that support; focus groups strongly favored Seattle having a light-rail system, but waffled when the details were revealed.
The biggest revelation occurred at the end of 2000, when the highly competent Joni Earl was hired. The former city manager for Mill Creek, a trained accountant, took only two months to discover that Sound Transit’s Link cost estimates were off by a billion dollars, and that it would take three years longer to finish the project than promised. Multiple newspapers, including the Daily Journal of Commerce, skewered the agency for its arrogance. The Federal Transit Administration’s inspector general undertook a two-year investigation to find any fraud that might have occurred, holding up a grant worth $500,000 that Sound Transit desperately needed. No fraud was found, but public trust was not restored until the agency opened its first stage of the Light link rail, running from downtown Seattle to Tukwila in 2009.
Wodnik presents both critics and advocates of the light rail fairly. The core supporters, however, were not the often-skeptical business leaders. Instead, all but one of the 18 major players listed at the front of the book were Sound Transit employees and board members who believed a public rapid-transit system was desperately needed to meet Seattle’s tremendous growth. Between 1960 and 1990, the number of jobs in the Central Puget Sound region more than doubled, the population grew 82% and the number of registered vehicles increased faster than the population.
Although Sound Transit’s Link light rail teetered on failure, Wodnik credits CEO Joni Earl for leading that agency through its rocky years to get Sound Transit back on track.
With Link expansion planned in the coming years, one might even call it “the little light rail that could.”
“Back on Track — Sound Transit’s Fight to Save Light Rail” by Bob Wodnik, Washington State University Press, 170 pp., $22.95
Author appearance: Nick Licata will interview Bob Wodnik about “Back on Track” at 7 p.m. Tuesday, Dec. 3, at Elliott Bay Book Company, 1521 10th Ave., Seattle, elliottbaybook.com