Voters first said yes to light rail 13 years ago, and now, $2.6 billion later, the success of this megaproject depends on the individual choices of thousands of ordinary travelers.

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Keith Frost moved his family into a South Seattle triplex two years ago, in part because someday he could commute by train.

Now that the Sound Transit light-rail line is set to open July 18 — four blocks from his home in a development called Othello Station — he’s thinking about the small changes to come in his daily routine: The ride downtown will be less crowded than the bus, about five minutes faster, and smooth enough that he could drink coffee or use a laptop.

“The traffic has gotten so much worse in the last 20 years,” Frost said, keeping his balance while standing in the aisle on Metro bus Route 106. “It’s been a long time coming.”

Voters first said yes to light rail 13 years ago, and now, $2.6 billion later, the success of this megaproject depends on individual choices of thousands of ordinary travelers like Frost.

Will people walk to reach a station? Will they get out of their cars to ride the train? Or will most simply be switching from bus to light rail?

The initial line from downtown to Tukwila opens this summer, followed by service to Seattle-Tacoma International Airport around the end of the year, for a total 16 miles.

Sound Transit predicts an average of 26,600 riders a day in 2010. Early studies said population growth would help the corridor carry 45,000 by 2020, if no extensions were built. Rail would reduce freeway congestion in the South End about 1 percent.

Link does offer a dependable option for those near a station. The greater potential lies in the future — the first line is a sort of down payment.

In seven years, for instance, when a 3-mile tunnel to the University of Washington is done, it will be easier for a nurse at UW Medical Center to live in the more affordable South End and ride to work. Last fall, voters approved lines to Lynnwood, Overlake and Federal Way by the early 2020s.

Luring new riders

Politicians count on the freshness and convenience of rail to build new transit clientele and not merely siphon riders out of the buses.

Nationally, light-rail ridership grew 8 percent last year because of new track lines and higher gas prices, says the American Public Transportation Association.

Seattle joins at least 20 U.S. cities with sizable modern light-rail systems. Portland’s MAX and Vancouver, B.C.’s SkyTrain are adding lines this year, while Honolulu voters just approved a $5 billion elevated line.

In Portland, most riders surveyed were so-called “choice riders,” who own cars but prefer a train. Roughly one-tenth said they don’t have a car because they ride rail. Train users tend to be somewhat younger, more educated and more affluent than bus-only customers.

Portland also found that on one line, ridership is double what buses carried along the same route.

Seattle — which uses mostly buses — already has relatively high transit use, at least as high as Portland.

According to a U.S. Census Bureau survey in 2005, 17 percent of people who worked in the city of Seattle took public transit to work, compared with 13.3 percent in the city of Portland.

Sound Transit supporters say trains will lure even more people to transit. The agency told federal regulators that, long term, about two-thirds of South End riders would be new transit users who wouldn’t otherwise take a bus.

Commuters, of course, are a prime market; surveys for Sound Transit found that three-fourths of current bus trips in the corridor involve work or school.

In addition to helping commuters, light rail should complement big events, including concerts and Seattle Center festivals. The first tryout is opening day, when the Sounders FC soccer team hosts Chelsea FC at Qwest Field. A two-car train can carry 400 fans.

Tatiana Lopez, a desk clerk at Tukwila Motel 6, said out-of-town fans could ride from the motel to a ballgame instead of paying high parking fees in Sodo.

Bus rider Wayne Bogert, of SeaTac, said although the train won’t reach his workplace at Boeing, it would encourage him to go downtown more. Daniel Carter, of SeaTac, said he’d ride to physical therapy near downtown and to see friends in Rainier Valley, “probably every weekend, until I get a car.”

And curiosity should draw thousands, as it did when the new South Lake Union streetcar opened in December 2007. Seattle anticipates 100,000 riders the first day.

Focus off park-and-ride

Seattle differs profoundly from Denver, Salt Lake, Dallas and even Portland, which already have stretched their tracks far into the suburbs, taking advantage of flatter terrain and cheaper construction costs.

While Denver has more than 10,000 park-and-ride spaces, the first line here has only 600, in Tukwila. The agency assumes that thousands will walk, bike, reach the stations by bus, or move into dense housing complexes near the light-rail line instead of driving a car there.

Metro is changing or eliminating some bus routes and adding service to others so that trains will do more of the heavy lifting.

For some commuters, the change is unwelcome.

Debbie Vogel’s freeway express bus from Tukwila faces no congestion at 6 a.m., but it’s being replaced by the less-direct rail route. “Because of the number of stops it makes, it’s going to add 15 to 20 minutes to my commute each way,” she said. “This bus goes straight downtown.”

Victor Obeso, service-development manager for King County Metro Transit, says about 15,000 of the 80,000 bus riders near the rail line would benefit from a faster, more reliable trip if they combine bus and rail, or if they walk to train stops.

For example, the 106 bus from Renton and Rainier Beach crosses Martin Luther King Jr. Way South at the Othello light-rail stop. From that point, the train is supposed to reach Pioneer Square in 22 minutes.

“You can count on the same time, every time. That’s why you do rail,” said Sound Transit spokesman Bruce Gray.

Starting next year, Metro’s new RapidRide “A Line” bus will deliver people from Federal Way to the airport and Tukwila train stations every 10 minutes at peak times.

“South King County has never had service like that. That is phenomenal service for us in the suburbs,” said King County Councilmember Julia Patterson.

Hills may be a deterrent

One justification for building the train line was that population would grow around the train, with people able to walk to stations. Seattle bans new park-and-ride lots nearby to make the city more pedestrian-friendly.

Planners assume most people would walk a quarter-mile, and some a half-mile, to a transit hub.

But Seattle’s hills can be an obstacle.

“People will walk [down] to Othello, take the 106 [bus] back,” said Joy Bryngelson, a community social worker in the NewHolly neighborhood on south Beacon Hill. “It is walkable, but it’s tough.”

Residents tell her they want circulator trams to the train, similar to park-and-fly shuttles at the airport.

Some say they would have to walk too far to use trains — so for them, a bus that makes lots of stops is better.

The Asian Counseling and Referral Service has asked the county to stop a proposal to cut the 42 bus, which stops at its door. Without the bus, many elderly clients, often carrying groceries, would have to walk five blocks to the Mount Baker train station.

Local shoppers, one significant transit market in Rainier Valley, won’t necessarily switch to trains.

The Viet-Wah Supermarket sits in a strip mall between two stations on MLK Way, each at least a half-mile away. Buses bring 20 to 30 percent of shoppers. The train zips right past the store, so manager Peter Tran thinks customers will still want a bus. But rail might bring a few: Every week, his employees retrieve a couple of dozen carts a half-mile away.

Mike Lindblom: 206-515-5631 or mlindblom@seattletimes.com