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Is the train coming yet?

Parked in a railyard in Tacoma on a recent Sunday afternoon, the Sounder commuter train waits to start the work week with a run to Seattle and back. Similar trains are promised for the North Sound area, including a stop near the Mukilteo ferry terminal. - Matt Johnson
Parked in a railyard in Tacoma on a recent Sunday afternoon, the Sounder commuter train waits to start the work week with a run to Seattle and back. Similar trains are promised for the North Sound area, including a stop near the Mukilteo ferry terminal.
— image credit: Matt Johnson

Is it coming? Is it coming? Is it here yet?

In terms of frequently asked questions, these two queries come up most often in just a few situations around Whidbey Island. One, of course, is in the Clinton ferry line. The other is in any conversation regarding Sound Transit's Sounder commuter train.

By 2004, through no tax dollars of their own, Whidbey Island commuters are expected to have a commuter rail link between the Mukilteo ferry dock and downtown Seattle. But as time ticks toward the completion date for a Sounder station and train service to Mukilteo, the project becomes more and more ambitious.

On standby until Burlington Northern relocates some of the track it owns in the area, the service is something island commuters want, even though it is the taxpayers in Snohomish, King and Pierce counties who are paying for it. Sound Transit estimates that 50 percent of the riders it will carry from the Mukilteo station will be coming off the ferry from their homes on Whidbey Island.

But because Island County carries no part of the tax burden for the train system, its riders have little say on when and how the project will get done.

Craig Cyr, a Freeland resident who has commuted to Microsoft's Renton headquarters for a number of years, said Whidbey Islanders should still have a place on the Sound Transit Board, even if it is only an advisory spot.

"Since more than 40 percent of the riders of the Sound Transit system will be coming from Whidbey Island, somebody from here should be on the panel," he said.

That's not likely, said Geoff Stuckart, a spokesman for Sound Transit. While the agency did choose Mukilteo as a site for one of several stations in the Everett area, it did so based on ridership projections, not pressure from islanders.

"There's a market there," he said.

Planned to operate similarly to the heavy-rail Sounder line currently running between Tacoma and Seattle, a train stopping in Mukilteo would serve ferry riders, car commuters and bus riders. To get commuters out of their cars, the Mukilteo station is planned to be built adjacent to a 120-vehicle park and ride to be built on the site of an old Department of Defense fuel tank farm. The DOD has yet to hand the property over to the Port of Everett, which will lease the property to Sound Transit for a park and ride, Stuckart said.

A Sounder train would probably pick up more than just commuters. Bob Love, a South Whidbey real estate agent, said he can't wait for the chance to purchase a $4 ticket to downtown Seattle to go to a Mariners baseball game.

"From that standpoint, I think it's a boom," he said.

Tickets on the Sounder are expected to cost between $2 and $4, depending on the destination. Stuckart said Sound Transit will probably sell combination passes that allow riders to take a ferry, ride a bus and ride the train all on one fare.

There are still some "ifs" about the project. Even on the Sound Transit Web site, the agency couches its promise of train service in "if and when" language. But if the "ifs" are wiped away by certainty, then the Mukilteo station will be one of 12 in an 82-mile rail corridor between Everett and Lakewood. At full operation, the Mukilteo station is expected to run 12 trains per day.

Together with Whidbey's Island Transit, the Sounder could become part of a public transit web that would move passengers anywhere between Tacoma and Mount Vernon without a car. Island Transit director Martha Rose said her system already has free buses moving people as far north as Mount Vernon and as far south as the Clinton ferry dock. Throwing a train into the mix, as Skagit Area Transit has done already, will take more cars off the road, she said.

"We've been working on trains for years," said Rose, who has sat in on a number of Sounder meetings in the past.

Sound Transit expects to spend $11.5 million building the Mukilteo station.

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