As goes Lynnwood, so goes Sound Transit’s ridership on future northern lines, including an Everett extension on the fall ballot.

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Whether the future Sound Transit light-rail network moves the masses, or just empty railcars, will depend a great deal on Lynnwood.

This northern suburb’s transit center is supposed to handle an estimated 36,000 daily riders coming or going on light rail — just for the Northgate-Lynnwood line voters previously approved. That’s about the same as current demand for the new University of Washington and Capitol Hill stations combined.

And the stakes go even higher in the $54 billion Sound Transit 3 ballot measure, which includes a line to Everett by 2036.

ST3 proposes to make Lynnwood Station, opening in 2023, the midpoint of the region’s north transit spine, not merely a satellite for Seattle.

Maps in the ST3 proposal depict roughly 10 million yearly passengers traveling north of Lynnwood Station, toward the proposed Ash Way and Mariner stations, a magnitude similar to West Seattle or Ballard. The number grows to 15 million a year just south toward Mountlake Terrace.

Lynnwood is declaring itself ready for a transformation.

Mayor Nicola Smith calls her downtown “ground ready, dirt ready” to welcome people and buildings.

Ironically, the city’s strip malls and parking lots from the 1970s, built to make shopping by car convenient, provide land for easy transit-oriented development.

Daydreaming of growth and tax revenue, the City Council has legalized towers as tall as 140 to 350 feet across a 250-acre expanse, with plaza parks and wide sidewalks, to support 3,000 apartments and 15,000 jobs.

Smith hopes a suburb formerly lampooned for big hair and blue eye shadow will become cool when it provides a walkable downtown, nightlife, and trains to escape gridlock.

“A wonderful place to live,” she said. “I’ve got my eye on the 30-story building, with the suite at the top, mountain view on all four sides.”

Lynnwood is the most eager for growth among several communities — including Burien, Shoreline, Kenmore, and the Roosevelt and West Seattle Junction areas of Seattle — that are evolving into transit centers.

There’s cause to be skeptical of sky-high ambitions.

Lynnwood’s population has grown just 2 percent since 2010, to about 36,000 now, compared to 8 percent overall in sprawling Snohomish County.

City officials also count on four-fifths of train riders to take a bus, walk or bike to the station, a far higher rate than typical suburban stops.

ST3 critics contend the area’s prime corridors will be served by the Lynnwood Station to Northgate line and others that voters approved in Sound Transit 2 in 2008, so there’s no point raising $5.8 billion in taxes to reach Everett with rail.

Why is this place such a big deal?

Easy access

The Federal Transit Administration bet $1.2 billion on Lynnwood’s success, by paying half the cost of the Northgate-to-Lynnwood trackway, plus a grant to plan for greater density.

As the endpoint of ST2, Lynnwood Station would generate as many trips as the neighboring Mountlake Terrace, Shoreline and 145th Street stations combined.

The ST2 plan adds a garage that would increase Lynn­wood’s chronically full 1,368 spaces to 1,900 spaces.

Yet despite more car capacity, the station would rely mainly on feeder buses.

Seventeen routes go there already, including trips to Edmonds Community College. More buses are coming, via a sales-tax increase Community Transit voters approved last year. Swift 3 bus-rapid transit will show up every 10 minutes, from Edmonds to Lynnwood to Mill Creek.

Bus lanes will be added to busy 196th Street Southwest — not by appropriating general lanes like Seattle, but by widening the roadbed.

Community Transit will quit driving express buses into Seattle and focus on bus-to-train service in Snohomish County.

“When people realize there’s not going to be parking for everyone at Lynnwood Transit Center, they’re going to have to look into the alternatives,” spokesman Martin Munguia said. “Driving to the place and getting on a train, anyway, is a transfer.”

Mark Ahlers, of Lynnwood, analyst for the ST3 opposition group Smarter Transit, said train rides will be less comfortable than the double-decker buses commuters enjoy now.

“I’m getting in my express bus, and it’s got airplane-quality seats, high-back seats. When I get there, the first thing I’ll do is snooze,” said Ahlers. By contrast, he predicts, Sound Transit must run few enough light-rail cars to leave many riders standing, to keep operating costs reasonable.

Retired Lynnwood Councilmember Ted Hikel called the city’s strategy a disaster, because it adds only 500 parking spots. “That’s not going to be anywhere near the traffic that comes down to use it,” he said.

The Interurban and Scriber Lake trails converge at the station, giving pedestrians and bicyclists a diagonal shortcut from apartments and hotels.

Room to build

Lynnwood is the only urban growth center between Northgate and Everett listed by the Puget Sound Regional Council. Its population of 36,590 is supposed to grow two-thirds by 2040.

“I see that as our next major transportation hub,” said Snohomish County Executive Dave Somers. “South County is our hottest area for our development and growth, and where people want to live.”

The Urban Land Institute considers Lynnwood prime for five-story apartments over parking garages, to create the glimpse of a budding downtown.

That would leave blocks open to the northeast for taller structures, said Dustin Akers, Lynnwood city-center program manager.

Redevelopment should be easier than in quiet Shoreline, which struggles over proposals to replace houses and trees with apartments at two stations; and North Seattle, where the proposed 130th Street Station in ST3 sits near a public golf course.

Lynnwood boasted online about the first tower crane in the city, a year ago.

A 308-unit SHAG senior-living complex is being built, along with the seven-story, 347-unit CityCenteraffordable apartments, and a Hilton Garden Inn.

Are visions of towers realistic?

Not for a while.

“Lynnwood’s a great area; you can zone way up in the air,” said John Torrance, a senior vice president with CBRE Real Estate. “The buildings aren’t going to get there until the light rail is known to be there.”

He compares its potential to the SkyTrain transit corridors in Burnaby, B.C. “They build 50 stories up there, around the transit stations,” he said.

Matthew Gardner, chief economist for Windermere Real Estate, doubts office towers will reach Lynnwood before the 2030s or 2040s. A 300-foot steel high-rise, at perhaps $600 a square foot, is far costlier than a six-story apartment building of wood and concrete, and Lynnwood currently lacks high property values to give developers a strong return on investment, he said.

Competition will continue from Bellevue, home of the future Spring District west of Microsoft headquarters, and a technical institute for the University of Washington and Tsinghua University. So long as room exists in Bellevue, other suburbs face a disadvantage, Gardner said.

Seattle Mayor Ed Murray recently proposed 24- and 31-story upzoning in the University District, another aspiring tech node.

“You’ll see cranes in the U District long before you’ll see cranes in Lynnwood,” predicted Gardner.

However, he said demand is coming soon for apartments and condos, because commuters want that 28-minute train into Seattle. “Absolutely, that could work in Lynnwood … denser multifamily, mid-rise and low-rise, certainly.”

City leaders made a deal to protect outlying homeowners from density, said Mayor Smith, in exchange for funneling growth to a big downtown.

Hikel worries that lower-priced and senior housing will create more demands for city services than they generate in tax.

“Density is not the answer to financial stability for the city, having good jobs, people working in the community,” he said. “Lynnwood is a very middle-class town; it always has been.”

But from a regional view, with average rents near $1,500 compared to $2,000 in Seattle and $1,900 in Bellevue, a reviving downtown offers affordable housing.

Some 800,000 newcomers are expected to move into the Sound Transit service area by 2040, so a vote for ST3 is a vote for a bigger Lynnwood.

Two-way travel

Lynnwood Station is positioned to provide north-south travel options to Everett, if ST3 passes on Tuesday. The 16-mile segment is estimated to carry 41,000 daily passengers by 2040.

But if Lynnwood fails to supply crowds of commuters going north, you’ll wind up with an unbalanced system to Seattle.

Proposals call for trains every three minutes at peak, continuing north to Mariner Station at 128th Street Southwest. But at that point, half will return toward Seattle, leaving six-minute frequency to Paine Field and downtown Everett.

That approach says something.

“More people are not doing the end-to-end, Everett-to-Seattle route as one might think, compared to all the other communities to the south,” Sound Transit CEO Peter Rogoff said at a debate at Lynnwood Library.

Snohomish County’s board members at Sound Transit — Somers, Edmonds Mayor Dave Earling and Everett Councilmember Paul Roberts — are planning Link partly as a local, in-county service, more than the high-speed magic carpet to Seattle that longtime residents envisioned when the transit agency was formed in the 1990s.

The three officials insisted on tracks to Paine Field, a 14-minute bend in the spine, to reach the vast industrial area and proposed passenger airport.

Train commutes from Everett to Seattle would require an hour, including 15 stops before Westlake Station.

“That’s just another example of why this route doesn’t make sense,” said Tim Ellis, a frustrated Everett-to-Seattle bus commuter. An hour trip is no faster than existing Sounder trains along Puget Sound, he noted.

Pro-ST3 campaigners reply that even an hour beats a freeway bus, whose riders must allow 75 minutes to arrive reliably at work.

Somers foresees ST4 tracks across the Snohomish River and three sloughs to Marysville or Smokey Point, making Paine Field a greater draw for transit commuters living north.

Lynnwood itself is home to 2,000 residents who work at Boeing, said Akers, the Lynnwood city-center program manager. Some of those, and others shuttling from Edmonds or Mountlake Terrace, would supply a new transit clientele.

Another sign that as goes Lynnwood, so goes light rail.