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Originally published Thursday, June 11, 2009 at 4:16 PM

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Lance Dickie / Seattle Times editorial columnist

Light rail rolls, and commuter rail percolates

Examples abound for turning the 42 miles of the Eastside rail corridor into a commuter link between Eastside cities, with the added feature of an adjoining pedestrian and bicycle path. Two California counties, Sonoma and Marin, will open a 70-mile commuter-rail corridor in 2014.

Seattle Times editorial columnist

"More, please." That's my twist on how riders will react to their first trip aboard Sound Transit light rail.

Forty years in the making, service that begins July 18 from the downtown transit tunnel to Tukwila will be a smash hit, even one stop short of the airport. Shuttles will fill in until December.

My little slice of history on a June 3 test run with speechifying dignitaries was amazing and ordinary. Years ago, I had walked the bus tunnel as it was being dug. A sheet of plywood over a hole in a dirt wall separated two sections.

Light rail was a desirable improbability, but now shiny new rail cars are zipping over and under Seattle neighborhoods the way they do in most large cities.

The local economic impact has been the same as well. New apartment units and condos have been built along the route and hundreds more are coming.

Sound Transit has miles to go before it rests. Work is under way on the light-rail link north from downtown to the University of Washington, with all the residential and employment centers to be served.

Connections between where people live and work are the essence of public transit. The 42-mile Burlington Northern Santa Fe rail corridor between the cities of Snohomish and Renton — including a spur from Woodinville to Redmond — is ripe with potential. Or so it seemed in 2007, when the Port of Seattle said it would buy the line for $107 million and issue bonds to raise the cash.

In March, the Port announced the sale was postponed because the nation's credit markets were frozen. In the absence of a financial thaw, the Port has not said what comes next.

The lingering question of who will buy and preserve the right of way along the corridor splashes cold water on the excitement about a rail-and-trail combination between growing Eastside population centers.

In late May, the Discovery Institute's Cascadia Center hosted state and federal lawmakers, mayors, and state and local transportation officials at meetings in Portland and Seattle to learn more about high-speed rail from Oregon's Willamette Valley to the Canadian border.

They were also looking at how freight lines have been converted to multiple-use corridors that accommodate walkers, cyclists, commuter rail and freight. Portland's metropolitan transportation agency, Tri-Met, recently opened the Westside Express Service, 14.7 miles of rail and five stations.

Cascadia's template for the Eastside rail corridor might well be the Sonoma-Marin Area Rail Transit District, which is installing passenger rail service and a 12-foot-wide path for pedestrians and cyclists along 70 miles of Northwestern Pacific Railroad right of way.

John Nemeth, SMART's rail planning manager, spoke to a dinner gathering at Novelty Hill Winery in Woodinville. The setting was convivial, but the tourism potential of regional rail service is not lost on the local wine industry or the mayors from Bellingham, Leavenworth and Woodinville.

In California, from Cloverdale on the north to Larkspur on the south, the emphasis might appear to be on getting to a ferry connection to San Francisco. Instead, Nemeth said, commute patterns are changing to focus on population and job centers within the two counties.

SMART is fueled by a quarter-cent sales tax passed in 2008 with 70-percent approval. Service begins in 2014.

Locally, light rail is starting to roll, and commuter-rail creativity is percolating. That is what it takes to keep the region moving ahead.

Lance Dickie's column appears regularly on editorial pages of The Times. His e-mail address is ldickie@seattletimes.com

Copyright © 2009 The Seattle Times Company

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