Sound Transit, WSDOT handle different ways to travel

Multifamily neighborhoods in East King County illustrate the rapid residential growth in the region over the past twenty years. Photo by Chad Coleman.

Multifamily neighborhoods in East King County illustrate the rapid residential growth in the region over the past twenty years. Photo by Chad Coleman.

By Mary L. Grady
Reporter Newspapers
On Saturday, July 18, 2009, it was a new day for the Puget Sound region. Forty-five thousand people came out to ride Seattle’s new light rail system on opening day. But it took years and years of planning and agonizing in fits and starts to come to that day last summer.
Decades earlier, after recognizing that the region’s existing transportation system would someday be inadequate, the state Legislature passed a law that allowed counties to create a single agency, Sound Transit — the Central Puget Sound Regional Transit Authority — to develop alternatives for meeting regional travel needs.
In particular, the Legislature charged the agency with planning, building and operating a high-capacity transit system (within a three-county regional transit district) for the region’s most heavily used travel corridors.

Sound Transit means high-capacity buses and trains
Voters in 1996 approved a plan that provides the foundation of that system — regional express buses, commuter rail and light rail. Today, Sound Transit carries nearly 14 million riders a year.
As such, Sound Transit is the agency responsible for providing a regional transportation network that goes beyond roads, bridges and county boundaries.
The Sound Transit district map includes the most congested urban areas of King, Pierce and Snohomish counties, and generally follows the urban growth boundaries created by each county in accordance with the state Growth Management Act.
There are three major parts to Sound Transit:

  • Express bus: These buses connect Seattle, Bellevue, Everett and Tacoma with the region’s largest urban centers. New transit centers, park-and-ride lots and HOV access projects are part of the system to improve transit speed and service.
  • Sounder commuter trains: These trains run 74 miles every weekday between Everett and Tacoma.
  • Light rail: Sound Transit’s light rail system consists of a 1.6-mile line in Tacoma known as the Tacoma Link. The Central Link is a 15.7-mile light rail line running between downtown Seattle and Sea-Tac Airport.

It consists of a currently operating 14-mile initial segment, plus a 1.7-mile extension to the airport called Airport Link, scheduled to open in December 2009. The line runs through the SoDo district, Beacon Hill, Rainier Valley and portions of Tukwila. Central Link officially opened on July 18 for the initial segment.
A light rail extension north to the University of Washington via Capitol Hill began late last year, with service starting in 2016. The three-mile extension, to be completely underground, is expected to cost $1.5 billion. Half of the funding is expected to come from a grant from the Federal Transit Administration.

WSDOT means roads and ferries
The Washington State Department of Transportation (WSDOT) is responsible for planning, building and fixing more than 7,000 miles of highway in our state used by some 4.5 million drivers each year.
In addition to the roadways, the state is responsible for state-owned airports, ferries and the Washington State Patrol, licensing, and other services related to monitoring these networks and their use.
WSDOT is funded and directed by the governor and the state Legislature.
The agency prepares a Washington Transportation Plan, a 20-year vision for the state-owned and certain ‘state-interest’ modes of transportation.
This is a combination of the long-range statewide transportation plan (which analyzes facilities that the state operates) and the statewide transportation policy plan. The plan is reviewed and revised every four years.
The plan has two major purposes: first, to coordinate both metropolitan and regional planning for moving people and goods; and second, to keep the state eligible for federal funding. State, local, and federal transportation projects are not eligible for federal funding unless Washington has a long-range statewide transportation plan.
The plan is to also consider and implement projects, strategies and services that support the economic vitality of more rural, non-metropolitan areas.
Over the years, the Legislature designated and enabled three major types of transportation planning organizations to plan, construct and operate transportation networks.
As such, WSDOT is intertwined with the projects and planning efforts conducted by Sound Transit and King County Metro and various other transportation planning organizations scattered across the state.
The agency, working closely with private contractors, is presently in year five of a 25-year program to deliver the largest capital construction program in state history — more than $15 billion in projects, including 391 highway projects valued at $11 billion.
As WSDOT delivers transportation services, it must also work to preserve and fix environmental quality. Programs such as stormwater treatment, construction site erosion control, fish passage barrier removal, wetland replacement, air pollution control, and adaptation to climate change are important to the future health and safety of citizens. Each helps to protect priceless natural resources.
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Mary L. Grady is the editor of the Mercer Island Reporter. She can be reached at