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Originally published July 17, 2009 at 3:46 PM | Page modified July 17, 2009 at 8:01 PM

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Sound Transit opens 14 miles of light-rail service

The public and political leaders with a long-range vision for regional transportation celebrate the beginning of the light-rail era.

SOUND Transit's shiny debut of light-rail service is a notable exclamation point on four decades of debate, frustration and admirable tenacity.

A long-held vision for the region is celebrated with the opening of a 14-mile line between downtown Seattle and Tukwila, one stop short of Seattle-Tacoma International Airport. That connection is scheduled to open by the end of year.

Light rail has been 41 years in the making, with a first failed vote in 1968. Voters eventually endorsed light-rail construction in 1996, and they held the dream through budget disasters, management implosions and a steady drumbeat of skepticism and opposition, including our own.

Former Seattle Times editorial page editor Herb Robinson in a 1988 column captured the broad sentiment that sustained the region's interest:

"The latest wave of enthusiasm for light rail is propelled, of course, by public frustration over worsening congestion on existing freeways and arterials, and the scary forecasts of population increases, mainly in the suburbs."

Light rail was kept alive in the darkest of financial and political times because various officials were willing to invest their reputations in the idea. Key among them was Greg Nickels, Seattle mayor and former King County councilman. Washington Sen. Patty Murray provided timely infusions of federal money. At a particularly low moment in 2001, Ron Sims, Bob Drewel and John Ladenburg, county executives for King, Snohomish and Pierce counties, all stepped forward with Dave Earling, chair of Sound Transit.

As Sound Transit finances and tunnel estimates crumbled around the agency, a new executive director was brought on board. Joni Earl infused the transit agency with leadership skills and renewed credibility.

In recent years, local elected officials on the Eastside have come to appreciate a role for light rail in their communities, and provided strong endorsements for continued expansion of service.

Long-awaited service begins as Sound Transit is at work pushing light rail toward the city of SeaTac and Seattle's University District.

Public understanding of regional transportation needs has been ahead of process. As if to confirm Robinson's observation a generation ago, voters in November approved extension of light rail to Lynnwood, Federal Way and the Overlake Transit Center — forward-looking votes cast in the midst of a harrowing economic downturn.

Sound Transit light rail begins today to serve people who understood the stakes and remained steady in pursuit of a goal.

Copyright © 2009 The Seattle Times Company

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