Workers begin laying the light rail track at the future Northgate Station. (Lizz Giordano / The Herald)

Workers begin laying the light rail track at the future Northgate Station. (Lizz Giordano / The Herald)

It’s getting real: Light rail is coming to the ’burbs

Plans are farther along in Lynnwood than in Everett, which is the end of the line in more ways than one.

LYNNWOOD — As traffic slows to a tedious trickle, I-5 commuters might feel the need to look away from the taunting red river of brake lights ahead.

Off to the east, at Northgate, their gaze might settle on the six-story trackway under construction. A future light-rail station there is just a couple of years from completion. And by late 2021, Sound Transit expects its Link trains to whisk people from that very spot on a 14-minute trip to downtown Seattle.

“Once we’re up here, we hope more people will find their way to get on light rail,” Peter Rogoff, Sound Transit’s CEO, said as he toured the Northgate site last month. “I also think it’s a major milestone because of its visibility from the highway. When you have people stuck in traffic looking at trains going by, it gets people thinking about their commuting patterns and whether there’s a better way.”

Light rail won’t cross into Snohomish County until mid-2024, under the current schedule, or get past Lynnwood for a dozen years after that. Even so, the thrum at Northgate Station, with all of its concrete and rebar, may make the system’s next northward expansion much less abstract. It’s a good preview of what’s to come.

Here trains coming from the south will enter the Northgate Station. (Lizz Giordano / The Herald)

Here trains coming from the south will enter the Northgate Station. (Lizz Giordano / The Herald)

Major work is expected to start this summer with the demolition of two commercial buildings next to the Lynnwood Transit Center: the old Black Angus restaurant and McDonald’s Fine Furniture warehouse. Clusters of houses are set to come down in Mountlake Terrace and Shoreline. Large-scale grading and utilities are planned next year.

Heady visions aside, obstacles lurk. Cost overruns, a future economic downturn or trouble securing federal funding could delay the mass-transit expansion throughout Sound Transit’s service area. Changing political winds in Olympia also could slow progress on the multi-billion dollar, voter-approved plan.

Political leaders, and upper managers at the agency, are optimistic they’ll pull it off. But they acknowledge they have hurdles to clear.

The northward bend

Leaders at Sound Transit say they’re embarking on the largest and most expensive transit expansion in the nation.

That includes active and upcoming projects approved by voters in Snohomish, King and Pierce counties in 2008, through Sound Transit 2, plus a more ambitious expansion that passed in 2016 through Sound Transit 3. Combined, they surpass Los Angeles’ Measure M, which is larger overall, but also includes highway improvements.

A worker crosses over what will be the new parking garage for the Northgate Station in August 2017. (Lizz Giordano / The Herald)

A worker crosses over what will be the new parking garage for the Northgate Station in August 2017. (Lizz Giordano / The Herald)

For now, Husky Stadium is the end of the north line for light rail.

When Northgate opens, it will add another three stops. Trains will arrive there via underground stations in the University District and the Roosevelt neighborhood. The line will see daylight when it emerges from the Maple Leaf Portal, a few blocks south of the station. From there, the elevated trackway steadily rises.

It’s all a teeming construction site now, about two-thirds complete. A half-dozen cranes dotted the skyline a few weeks ago. There have been as many as 10.

“This is where the magic is going to happen,” said Lori Frederick, construction manager for major elements of the station, as she ascended to the future platform.

Here, on the raised guideway, riders will board trains.

From there, the planned route hugs I-5 on the east side, beginning the 8.5-mile Lynnwood Link extension. The project, which adds four stations and 1,500 parking spaces, promises to bring light rail to Snohomish County at last. During peak times, trains would arrive in Lynnwood every four minutes, moving people to Seattle in under a half hour.

By 2035, Sound Transit forecasts as many as 74,000 daily riders on that segment, up to a third of them new to transit.

The first station would sit just north of 145th Street, replacing the 68-stall park-and-ride there today. The lot would be expanded to handle increased bus traffic because the station will be the end point of a new Highway 522 bus rapid transit line from Woodinville.

The next stop for riders would be near 185th Street, east of Shoreline Stadium. Original plans put the five-story 500-space garage on the west side of the freeway — the opposite side of the station. Cost-saving adjustments, to overcome the extension’s $500 million funding shortfall identified last year, now place the parking garage on the same side of the freeway as the station, shortening the walk for commuters and eliminating the need to acquire more land. When finished, the station would replace Aurora Village as the southern terminus for Community Transit’s Swift bus from downtown Everett.

Moving north, the first light-rail station in Snohomish County would straddle 236th Street SW and modify the existing Mountlake Terrace Transit Center. The surface lot is scheduled to close in spring 2019, but the garage would stay open. To replace parking spaces lost during construction, Sound Transit plans to use an interim lot in Mountlake Terrace’s business district. About a year-and-a-half later, the agency expects to relocate the lot next to the transit center.

In August 2017 the future Northgate light rail station began to take shape. (Lizz Giordano / The Herald)

In August 2017 the future Northgate light rail station began to take shape. (Lizz Giordano / The Herald)

After leaving Mountlake Terrace, the light rail track would cross to the west side of I-5. The line would cut through the middle of the Lynnwood Transit Center. The bus bays are supposed to stay open as crews build a new parking garage, adding 500 more spaces at the overcrowded park-and-ride.

By heavy construction’s scheduled start date in mid-2019, Sound Transit plans to provide temporary parking at a strip mall north of 200th Street.

Rod Kempkes, Lynnwood Link’s executive project director, is responsible for seeing it through.

“That’s part of the challenge: maintaining this as an active transit center during construction,” Kempkes said.

Once this extension and stations open, anticipated in six years, Community Transit plans to stop sending buses to Seattle. Instead, the transit agency would shuttle commuters to the Mountlake Terrace and Lynnwood stations.

“There’s no reason for us to run buses to Seattle, when it will take half the time to get there by rail,” Community Transit spokesman Martin Munguia said.

Changing suburban landscapes

As Link light rail heads into the suburbs, it could radically alter the surrounding landscape.

In Bellevue, the city re-imagined the entire Bel-Red corridor — an area of 900 acres east of downtown. The fading industrial area offered a blank slate to design a modern neighborhood around transit.

Most cities won’t get that luxury, but still want to encourage growth near light rail. Construction started booming in Lynnwood a few years ago largely for that reason. There are new apartment buildings, a hotel and, soon, what figures to be Snohomish County’s second-tallest building: an 18-story high-rise near Alderwood mall.

Northgate light rail station under construction in June 2018. (Lizz Giordano / The Herald)

Northgate light rail station under construction in June 2018. (Lizz Giordano / The Herald)

Theoretically, zoning in Lynnwood’s City Center would allow for buildings of up to 30 stories.

The rising population in Lynnwood and surrounding unincorporated areas is expected to exceed 92,000 by 2035, according to state forecasts. That’s an increase of more than 20,000 over 2017. Most of the growth would occur within city limits.

“You can see changes happening in Lynnwood now with growth and redevelopment,” said Snohomish County Executive Dave Somers, chairman of Sound Transit’s Board of Directors. “Those types of changes are going to happen north of Lynnwood when they realize that light rail is coming.”

Somers wants to leverage the massive investment in transit.

The county last week launched a website to help plan stations near I-5 at 128th and 164th streets. Everett and Lynnwood also have started engaging neighbors and businesses in the planning discussions.

“The deeper you get into the schedule the less flexibility you have,” Somers said.

The Northgate Station is a teeming construction site, about two-thirds complete. (Lizz Giordano / The Herald)

The Northgate Station is a teeming construction site, about two-thirds complete. (Lizz Giordano / The Herald)

By September, Sound Transit hopes to submit major permit applications to Seattle, Shoreline and Lynnwood. The goal is to start construction during the first quarter of next year.

The agency is buying land and easements for 360 parcels along the route.

“We’re in a real big push this year — there will be a lot of offers going out this summer,” Kempkes said.

So far 74 parcels have been acquired by the agency.

Sound Transit knows Link’s path to the Lynnwood Transit Center parcel by parcel. After that, it’s a little more vague for the Everett extension. Planners are still figuring out where to put some of the stations.

The agency plans to begin public outreach early in 2020 for that section. The 16.3-mile extension is anticipated to open in 2036. It would connect Everett with Tacoma via Seattle, adding six stations.

Alderwood mall would host the first station in the extension to Everett. Sound Transit said the city advocated for that location.

The second station is slated for the Ash Way park-and-ride, north of 164th Street SW.

Approaching 128th St SW, the route turns west, passing the existing Mariner park-and-ride and the vicinity where the third station is planned.

It’s getting real: Light rail is coming to the ’burbs

At Airport Road the route swings north toward Paine Field and an unanswered question: Will the light rail serve job-rich Boeing or the future commercial passenger terminal?

At Highway 526, light rail swings back east to a station planned at Evergreen Way. The route heads north, skirting the western edge of I-5 on its way to Everett Station.

The looming obstacles

The timeline assumes that funding comes together. But that’s no sure thing. The chance of delays or revisions increases for more distant points in the network.

At least three obstacles loom. Foremost, leaders at Sound Transit are waiting, but hopeful, that the Trump administration will make good on more than $1 billion in federal transit funding.

Additionally, there’s the possibility that lawmakers in Olympia, or a lawsuit from anti-tax activists, could sap the agency’s car-tab revenues, by changing the formula for calculating a car’s depreciation.

Finally, the strong economy has sent labor and material costs soaring.

“Delay just adds cost,” Rogoff told the Board of Directors last month. “How much more expensive will the project be?”

To lock down costs as early as possible, the Sound Transit board last month pressed ahead with a policy that involves some risk. They decided to award contracts for Lynnwood Link, despite the mixed messages from the federal government. That’s necessary to keep the project on schedule for completion in mid-2024 and on budget, Rogoff said. The key factor is whether federal transit authorities quickly sign an agreement.

“If they don’t, the board will face some difficult questions on how we should proceed in the late summer and fall,” Rogoff said.

He and others are optimistic it won’t come to that.

The $1.17 billion federal grant is a huge chunk of Lynnwood Link’s $2.77 billion cost, according to recent documents. Congress set aside $100 million in Lynnwood Link funding last year and more money toward those kinds of transit projects earlier this year.

Because Congress has allocated the dollars, Rogoff said he was comfortable with awarding contracts.

Somers, however, realizes the chance of setback grows as time passes.

“We bear the risk that projects that we are building now don’t have,” he said. “Any downturn (in the economy) is going to fall on us who are at the end of the system.”

Noah Haglund: 425-339-3465; Twitter: @NWhaglund.

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