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Northgate Station
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Credit: KUOW Photo/Joshua McNichols

Here's what light rail means to these North Seattle commuters

Three new light rail stations open this Saturday in North Seattle at Northgate, Roosevelt, and the University District.

It’s an important moment for Seattle. For the first time, North and South Seattle will really be connected by light rail, a dream that's at least 25 years old.

We asked people what this moment means for them.

At the Northgate Transit Center, bus commuters gather at the curb. Every few minutes, a bus pulls up and sweeps them away.

Across a parking lot, the new Northgate light rail station catches the morning sun.

Jamie Holter plans to take full advantage of it when it opens. As she stood waiting for a slow bus, she told me about her commute. Sometimes, her bus gets caught in traffic. But when the new station opens, her ride to the University of Washington tower will take just five minutes.

“I went over to the U-District station where they were putting the finishing touches on it, and I got a selfie," she says. "And I was like, I’m so excited. Because nobody wants to drive to the U-District – it’s a total nightmare.”

She also says it’s going to get a whole lot easier when friends ask for a ride to the airport. "Now you can say “Yes, I will. I’ll take you to Northgate. And that’s as far as I’ll go, baby,'” she says.

The ride from Northgate to Sea-Tac airport takes 49 minutes.

At this particular bus stop, not all commuters were so excited. I met a lot of commuters going to First Hill, where several of the city's hospitals are.

There’s no light rail station on First Hill. “So in my case, it will have very little practical effect," says commuter Steven Gaynor. "There’s no way in the world that taking the train would be an improvement.”

His response brings up some history. When voters in King County first approved light rail back in 1996, the plans at that time included a station on First Hill. But it cost too much, because the soil is unstable there, and so the agency scuttled it. Instead, it built a streetcar, connecting First Hill with the light rail station on Capitol Hill. It was a consolation prize.

For some of these commuters standing at the Northgate Transit Center waiting for a bus, the arrival of light rail is already influencing how and where they choose to live.

Mireylle Muhoza currently commutes an hour by bus to get to work. She’s looking for a new apartment, possibly around Roosevelt Station. “Definitely one of the things that I’ve been considering a lot is how close to the light rail station would my place be, so it can be easy for me to commute,” she says.

There are thousands of apartment units under construction – or soon to break ground – around each of the three new stations. And of course, there will be even more housing to choose from when light rail reaches Bellevue and Redmond in 2023, or Lynnwood and Federal Way in 2024.

On this particular rainy morning, more commuters expressed enthusiasm for light rail than skepticism. Sound Transit expects these three new stations could bring in between 40 and 50 thousand new riders a day — that’s 50% more riders than the system transported in 2019.

Regarding those projections, let's address the elephant in the room: Could the pandemic lead to fewer light rail riders than experts expect?

That's possible, especially in the short term when many people are still working remotely.

But some commuters suggest that the pandemic didn't actually squash our need to explore the city. Instead, they say that urge to explore just got bottled up and these new stations could release that energy back into the world.

Paul Mullin, for example, who was waiting for a Northgate bus, actually lives closer to Roosevelt Station. He's excited about the difference that new station could make for his two teenage sons. “I just think that they’re gonna be more mobile," he says. "And I think that’s awesome. You know, especially since the pandemic, when everybody’s been so insular, I’d just like to see my boys get out and like, talk to people, and try different foods, and just experience – being out of the house, frankly.”

And now, maybe they’ll head to the U-District, which is full of great restaurants.

There’s an ice cream shop right outside the station called Sweet Alchemy. The owner, Lois Ko, says she’s been waiting years for the moment when this station opens. “I think Sound Transit is estimating like 10,000 people to be using this exit every day, and I can't wait," she says. "I’m so excited, especially coming out of 2020 when I had to look for customers, and then contact them, and then deliver to them..." she trails off. "So after having gone through that struggle, I can’t wait.” She can't wait to be busy again, and extend her shop's hours.

She mixed up a special ice cream flavor to celebrate the grand opening of the U-District station: blueberry lavender and UW honey. It’s purple and gold of course.

caption: Ice cream from Sweet Alchemy, in Seattle's U District near the station
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Ice cream from Sweet Alchemy, in Seattle's U District near the station
Credit: Lois Ko