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It's a big year for regional light rail, but tough questions loom for Sound Transit board

A bald young Black man stands on a rooftop with Seattle's skyline, clouds, and a flock of birds in the background. Below him is a train station. He's wearing a blue Columbia jacket.
Scott Greenstone
King County Councilmember Girmay Zahilay gets an overview of different versions of a future Chinatown-International District "hub" station, and how they might affect the neighborhood.

At the end of this month, Sound Transit light rail will open new stations in Bellevue and Redmond, and late this summer, cross county lines for the first time to reach Lynnwood.

It’s a momentous time for Sound Transit, which is hoping to pull off the nation’s biggest transit expansion. But it comes after a year of delays, disruptions, and ridership that isn’t the same as it was before the pandemic.

There are big questions about the future. To get answers, KNKX reporter Scott Greenstone talked to a new member of Sound Transit’s board – who rides the train to get to work.

Click "Listen" above to hear what he learned.


Note: This transcript is provided for reference only and may contain typos. Please confirm accuracy before quoting.

ZAHILAY: Girmay Zahilay. King County Councilmember. He/him pronouns. And right on time, here’s the light rail. No more service disruptions, people.

(The train approaches.)

GREENSTONE (narrating): Zahilay and I spoke right after he started on the Sound Transit board earlier this year. On his way to his first meeting in January, the service disruptions cost him about 15 minutes.

ZAHILAY: We had to get dropped off at the SoDo station… And I had to cross the platform to the Link light rail that was going in the opposite direction, but it came from the opposite direction and then redirected toward downtown.

GREENSTONE (narrating): Confused? Welcome to the last year for 1 Line light rail riders. Tunnel renovations, sinking tracks, a hole in the Westlake tunnel roof … messed up schedules for weeks at a time.

For one barista named Zane DeYoung, it finally became too much in February. At the Northgate station.

DEYOUNG: I don't want to wait on this freezing platform for like 30 minutes... They took so long to get there that like, by the time the train arrived, half the population of Seattle was like, in each of the cars.

GREENSTONE: DeYoung now drives their car to work – in downtown Seattle. They’re hardly alone. I asked Zahilay about it.

GREENSTONE (in interview): Weekday average ridership is still lagging below pre-pandemic numbers. Do you think that's a problem? Or is it just the new normal?

ZAHILAY: I think it's a problem. …And that's why people continue to opt for getting, you know, investing in parking garages… it's hard for them to imagine a world where taking public transit is faster and more reliable and more convenient than driving.

GREENSTONE (narr.): With the 2 Line opening in April, and more scheduled in the next 15 years, Zahilay hopes for fewer disruptions … as we arrive at his first meeting of the day, in Chinatown.

ZAHILAY: Oh, we’re here (laughing). When we have those other lines … I think of it as more options for release valves when there’s tension in the system.

GREENSTONE (narrating): This neighborhood will be where several of those ‘valves’ converge when service is extended to West Seattle and Ballard in the next 10 years or so. That will require a whole new station. And of course, that comes with a whole new set of questions.

The possible impacts of construction really worry some Chinatown business owners … instead of a big hub, they want two smaller stations – one north of Chinatown, one south. 

But that would force riders coming from the south… to get off, walk, and catch a new train to keep going downtown. 

That’s why we’re here. Zahilay is meeting with Miye Moriguchi, who’s part of the family that owns the Uwajimaya grocery store in the neighborhood. She takes us on a little tour.

A man in a beanie looks at a woman gesturing. Behind them, there are stairs down into a train station, and far away, a clock tower.
Scott Greenstone
Miye Moriguchi, the real estate and facilities director at Uwajimaya Inc., talks to King County Councilmember Girmay Zahilay about how splitting the Chinatown-International District "hub" station into two might impact the neighborhood.

MORIGUCHI: Whatever that walk may be, and it will be a walk to get to the other station.

GREENSTONE (narrating): The decision about whether to build a big station in Chinatown or two on either end … will probably be made next year.

ZAHILAY: I haven't come down on a side yet, just because this is my — these are my first few weeks. And I'm trying to listen to all the stakeholders, all the people who will be impacted by this decision. But man, this is by far the most contentious issue facing Sound Transit right now, in my community listening sessions. …But I will eventually have to support one of the one of those two options and piss off 50% of the community. Welcome to being a councilmember.

GREENSTONE (narration): I ask Zahilay why he wanted to be on this agency’s board – Sound Transit is financially strained. It just lost a CEO who’d barely been there over a year.

Zahilay tells me a story. As a kid right here in Chinatown, he stayed in a homeless shelter – then in public housing down in Rainier Valley where we came from.

Then his mom saved up enough money to buy a home, and leave public housing when he was a teenager. They moved out of town – to Skyway.

He finishes the story in his office.

ZAHILAY: And suddenly there are no community centers and a very infrequent Metro bus line that went up that Renton Avenue South Hill … and we were so isolated, growing up in Skyway. I mean to the point where kids are dreading summer. Can you believe that? …No school bus, no school, no friends, no community centers… No parents in the house because my mom was working three jobs like… to make ends meet. So that was a really damaging time of our childhood… just living alone. That's, you know – a bus is more than a bus. A train is more than a train.

GREENSTONE (narr.): The 2 Line – and a new era for Sound Transit – begins service April 27th.

Scott Greenstone, KNKX News.

Corrected: April 5, 2024 at 2:29 PM PDT
A previous version of this story mischaracterized the extent of Sound Transit's April expansion.
Scott Greenstone is a former KNKX reporter. His reporting focused on under-covered communities, and spotlighting the powerful people making decisions that affect all of us throughout Western Washington.