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Originally published Friday, July 17, 2009 at 12:00 AM

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Light-rail debut to offer a little bit for everybody

Sound Transit is organizing one of Seattle's biggest public parties in years, as thousands of people are expected to wait up to an hour for a free train ride Saturday.

Seattle Times transportation reporter

Opening day

8:20 a.m.: Opening ceremony at Mount Baker Station

10 a.m.: Service begins. Rides are free all day.

8 p.m.: Service ends.

Link light-rail basics

Special hours this weekend: 10 a.m.-8 p.m. Saturday; 10 a.m.-6 p.m. Sunday. Rides are free both days.

Opening-day buses: Round-trip train rides will not be permitted Saturday. At Tukwila and Westlake, all passengers must leave the train. Riders can wait in line for a return trip or take special Metro buses, some of which will stop at all Link stations, while other express runs will make fewer stops.

Regular hours: 5 a.m.-1 a.m. Monday-Saturday; 6 a.m.-midnight Sundays, holidays. Trains will arrive as often as every 7.5 minutes at peak times.

Fares: $1.75-$2.50 for adults; FlexPass, PugetPass and bus transfers may be applied to the fare. (Details on fares, passes and transfers are available in our interactive guide at seattletimes.com)

Opening day by station

Westlake Station: Gather in Westlake Park. To avoid crowding, employees will lead riders into the downtown transit tunnel, to fill one train at a time. Travel to Bite of Seattle at Seattle Center by foot, bus or monorail.

Stadium Station: Expect crowd surges before and after Sounders FC game against Chelsea, at noon.

Mount Baker Station: Opening ceremony: 8:20 a.m. Speeches by Seattle Mayor Greg Nickels, Tukwila Mayor Jim Haggerton, others.

Columbia City Station: Pedicab rides for $1 to historic district along Rainier Avenue South. Free maps for historic walking tour. Discounts, sidewalk sales, free drinks.

Othello Station: Several blocks away, a pancake breakfast, $6, from 9:30 a.m. to 12:30 p.m., Southeast Seattle Senior Center, Rainier Avenue South and South Holly Street. Next to the station, a party, 10 a.m. to 5 p.m., includes music, dragon dance, break dancing by Massive Monkees at 3:30 p.m.

Tukwila International Boulevard Station: Riders must get off at Tukwila station (and Westlake Station) and wait in line for a return trip, or take a special Metro express bus.

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Sound Transit is organizing one of Seattle's biggest public parties in years, as thousands of people are expected to wait up to an hour for a free train ride Saturday.

More than 700 paid and volunteer workers, and more than $1 million, are being devoted to making the crowds as comfortable as possible at a dozen Link light-rail stations.

There will be music, information booths, drinking water, some food — even people who will hold your place in line while you're away at one of the portable toilets. Merchants and neighborhood groups will have events at some stops.

At Westlake Station, expected to be the busiest, the pilgrimage will begin outdoors in the nearby plaza, where people will walk through the lines, until staffers escort them to the underground station in groups of 200, to meet each train.

All light-rail rides will be free from 10 a.m. to 8 p.m. Saturday, and 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. Sunday.

Ridership is hard to predict on any new rail system, even more so at an opening like this.

Sound Transit will deploy a dozen two-car trains, running every 7 ½ minutes, filled with up to 350 people per train, all weekend.

That works out to 56,000 one-way rides for the whole 14 miles Saturday.

"Fireworks effect"

Crowd-control strategies are based on experience in Phoenix, where a startling 90,000 people showed up for a light-rail opening in December. In Minneapolis, 52,000 rides were taken during a Saturday light-rail opening in 2004.

Mayor Greg Nickels and transit officials this spring spoke of preparing for up to 100,000 trips in green Seattle.

But this week, publicists regret that news reports fixated on that number.

They now worry about losing rail seekers to the "fireworks effect" — just two weeks ago, after dire warnings, crowds were relatively light north of Lake Union during the July 4 display.

Based on other light-rail openings, planners expect more than double the typical weekday volume.

"There could be lines, there may be crowds. That doesn't preclude you from coming down and enjoying a ride," said Ron Klein, Sound Transit communications director. "Even if you have to wait in line, we will have water, we will have entertainment, we will make it an enjoyable experience. We want as many people as possible to be able to tell their children and grandchildren they were the first to ride Link light rail."

The $1.1 million budget for opening weekend includes $200,000 in police overtime, $133,000 for buses, $195,000 on a crowd and event consultant, $193,000 on staffing, $67,250 for government permits, $42,000 to entertainers, and $46,000 to put a 12-page insert into The Seattle Times and The (Tacoma) News Tribune. Sponsorships are covering $183,600.

Stations will have entertainment; police will be at major intersections. Extra bicycle-parking racks will be added.

The event rivals the first baseball game at Safeco Field in July 1999, demolition of the Kingdome in March 2000 or the first football game at Seahawks Stadium (now Qwest Field) in August 2002.

The train isn't the only attraction. People also will ride to the Sounders FC soccer game against Chelsea FC on Saturday, and the Bite of Seattle all weekend at Seattle Center.

Another wild card is that unlike in Phoenix, the line here is much shorter and has only one park-and-ride lot, at Tukwila.

Officials advise people not to drive because on-street parking near stations is very limited. Two-hour weekday parking limits for nonresidents take effect Monday.

Sound Transit assumes most passengers will board at Westlake or Tukwila, with only 15 or 20 people coming on at each station in between. However, surges of soccer fans at Sodo, International District or Stadium stations might disrupt the flow.

At both ends of the line, riders can either get back in line to make a return trip, or switch to Metro buses that will travel the length of the route. The buses are meant to give people an alternative to waiting in a train line — and would also open up room on the return trains.

Sound Transit startup manager Mike Williams said it would be possible to add more trains, but he doesn't expect to do so.

Normal service on the $2.3 billion, 14-mile line from downtown to Tukwila starts at 5 a.m. Monday.

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

Copyright © 2009 The Seattle Times Company

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