Tens of thousands of people converged Saturday on North Seattle to explore Sound Transit’s new Northgate, Roosevelt and U District stations, filling many light-rail trains to standing room only.

The $1.9 billion, 4.3-mile corridor, mostly underground, is projected to serve roughly 45,000 daily passengers, including college students going to class or families heading to a ballgame in Sodo. Actual use may be less because of COVID-19 and work from home or rise because of Seattle’s rapid population growth.

More coverage of Sound Transit’s light rail extension to North Seattle

The first train left Northgate Station on schedule at 4:51 a.m. after cheers from 150 passengers on the platform.

Soon, a few travelers took the 49-minute ride to SeaTac/Airport Station.

Jeff Foster, of Lake Forest Park, rode light rail from Northgate to Seattle-Tacoma International Airport for a speaking trip in Dallas. His family dropped him off at Northgate instead of near Husky Stadium, saving him 15 to 20 minutes, he said.

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“Just about every great city — Chicago, D.C., Paris, Shanghai, New York — all have great transit systems,” he said. “We’re late to the game, but it will be really great for the region.”

Trains ran at normal weekend frequency, every 10 minutes, except during early morning and late night. They’ll run as often as eight minutes apart at weekday peaks, and can be increased to four-minute frequency as more passengers return.

After sparse use early Saturday, crowds filled the trains to about 100 people per railcar midday — two-thirds the ideal capacity of 150 people, or 600 people per four-car train. Nearly all wore masks.

Sound Transit may not have a ridership tally for Saturday for a couple weeks, said agency spokesperson John Gallagher, noting the trains’ automated passenger counters are being recalibrated.

As part of the celebration, thousands stepped out of the U District Station station for a street fair, with music and food. And near Northgate, people on foot and bicycles crossed the newly dedicated John Lewis Memorial Bridge, a white steel-arch structure that spans Interstate 5 from North Seattle College to the Northgate Station. The bridge honors the late civil-rights leader and Georgia congressman .

In a ceremony to dedicate the new pedestrian bridge, North Seattle College President Chemene Crawford said Lewis left a legacy of service for the entire country and dedicated his life to bringing justice for all people. She said voting rights are in jeopardy.

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“We must never forget and never stop crossing bridges, to ensure equity and justice for all,” Crawford said. “Future generations must know this American’s name.”

Opening day did expose some worries.

The trains’ huddled masses made commuter King Whitcopf nervous enough to block the seat next to him in the rear of the railcar.

“I don’t have a car; I don’t drive; I have to ride this crowded train. I don’t have any other options,” he said, heading to his retail job at Northgate. Whitcopf said two relatives suffered severe COVID-19 infections, and he is hoping for fewer riders next week.

At least three escalators stalled in the U District station, though not at the same time. Sound Transit staff blamed one stall at Roosevelt Station on a software flaw. All three new stations also have staircases.

Travis Buck, who lives in an apartment on Northeast 43rd Street near U District Station, complained public-address announcements could be heard from inside his apartment, before dawn.

Customers also complained that not enough machines to purchase tickets were operational and that signs inside the stations were not reporting real-time information about train arrivals.

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Roosevelt Station users should prepare for risk on 12th Avenue Northeast, a two-lane, northbound-only street between the north station entrance and Roosevelt High School. At about 1:25 p.m. a driver stopped in the crosswalk, while another driver zipped by in the next lane, and nearly hit a woman crossing the street.

“They need a signal here!” she said.

Visibility will be especially tough when buses stop there.

The Seattle Department of Transportation ordered signals months ago, but because of supply-chain delays, they might not be installed for a few months, said spokesperson Ethan Bergerson.

Around the stations, future improvements are still under construction.

There’s no bike route yet for the north side of Northgate Station, and city officials don’t know yet when the Northgate mall’s private developers will build their planned bike trail along First Avenue Northeast. South of the train station, a new SDOT bike trail leads uphill into the Maple Leaf neighborhood. 

Sound Transit, King County Metro, and Community Transit adjusted several north-end bus routes to terminate or connect to light-rail stations, forcing some riders to take a bus and a train to reach their destinations. Some routes have been eliminated.

However, the bus stop at U District Station’s south entrance, serving new Route 20 to Green Lake and Route 44 westbound to Ballard, won’t be done for a few weeks, because the city found additional utilities under Northeast 43rd Street, said King County Metro Transit staff.

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The stations’ opening comes just before the Seattle Center Monorail’s scheduled Oct. 9 return to service, featuring a brighter and roomier boarding lobby at Westlake Station, said Alan Hart, principal for designer VIA Architecture. Kraken hockey fans, and those attending Foo Fighters and Coldplay concerts, will be able to catch light rail or park there, and ascend shopping-center escalators to the monorail, which can carry 3,000 people per hour to Seattle Center, he said.

Heading to class Saturday, University of Washington graduate student Caitlin O’Morchoe said she was “stoked” about the new light-rail line. She lives in Maple Leaf and boarded at Northgate Station, saying the transfer from bus to train was “so easy.”

Northgate Station transfers from trains to buses may be confusing at first, but employees were helping guide people Saturday. The key for Monday’s commute is knowing the northbound buses to Snohomish County and new Route 320 taking southbound I-5 to South Lake Union pick up passengers at Bay 2, the southwest corner of the train stop.

Lori Mahieu, who lives in the Northgate area, said she enjoyed the open view from the Northgate station platform. “You can see all around,” she said. “I spend a lot of time downtown in the underground stations, so I’m glad to be above ground.”

Far north of the station, concrete tracks and columns are under construction. But that 8.5-mile segment to Shoreline, Mountlake Terrace and Lynnwood won’t open until 2024.