A CITY ON A HILL | Light rail: We want more and we want it now!

It's been only a couple of months since Sound Transit's Link light rail expanded by two stops (Capitol Hill and Husky Stadium), and immediately became a much more useful way to get around town.

Seven years after its first stretch opened (from Westlake to Tukwila), the rail's more popular than ever.

Sound Transit picked the perfect time to launch its ballot measure to build even more rail. The "ST3" proposal would fund tracks going north to Everett, south to Tacoma, and east to Redmond and Issaquah; plus a separate line from Ballard to West Seattle and a second downtown tunnel to handle the additional train traffic. The $50 billion measure would fund 58 more miles of rail in all.

The agency held public hearings, staged an online survey, and solicited citizen feedback by mail and email.

The overwhelming result: most everybody (except Bellevue Square mogul Kemper Feeman, a perennial foe of all non-auto transportation) wants a lot more light rail, and they want it a lot sooner than ST3 originally promised. 

In response, Sound Transit went back to its books and its regulations, and proclaimed it had found a little more "bonding capacity." The ST3 proposal was rewritten to put more money ($4 billion) into earlier phases of light rail construction, to get projects completed at least a little sooner. The Northgate to Everett stretch, as an example, would be finished in 20 years instead of 25. Ballard would be served in 19 years instead of 22. (The full details are at soundtransit3.org.)

If that sounds like it's still too long, you're right. 

But it can't all be built immediately, even with the ballot measure's recent re-adjustments.

For an example, look at what ST's building right now.

It's the "Northgate Link" segment from Husky Stadium to new stations at the U District, Roosevelt, and Northgate. One of the two tunnels for the line has finished digging; the other's well on its way. 

(These are small, one-train-wide tunnels, with none of the problems faced by the huge "Bertha" boring machine building a highway tunnel downtown.) 

But there's still the finishing of the tunnel interiors, and the building out of the stations themselves. 

IN theory, ST could open one new station at a time. But It's much more time- and money-efficient for ST's contractors to work on each step of the work at the same time for the segment's whole 4.5-mile length (all the track, all the ventilation, all the power and lighting cables, etc.).

Compare this to the building of Interstate 5, a half-century ago. 

The national Interstate Highway system was first announced early in the Eisenhower era, the mid-1950s. Even in an era with far fewer rules, regulations, and bureaucratic obstacles to delay big infrastructure projects, it still took the state Department of Highways (now WSDOT) until 1958-59 to determine the placement of the route and start seizing land by eminent domain. 

Then, before any concrete could be poured, cities and counties had to put in new water and sewer lines, replacing those on land that would be paved over. Utilities had to do the same with phone and electric lines. 

By the 1962 Seattle World's Fair, I-5 through central Seattle still wasn't ready. Photos from the just-opened Space Needle show long ribbons of flattened-out ground where the freeway would be. 

Parts of I-5 in north Snohomish and Skagit countries weren't finished until 1973.

Besides the relative lack of regulations back then, there's another difference: Even before I-5 was built, you could still drive in a private auto to all the places where I-5 would eventually go. You just had to do so on what we now call "surface streets." The freeway made these car trips faster (at the time, before traffic jams became daily things), but it didn't create travel opportunities where none had been.

But you can't take a light rail train where its tracks don't (or don't yet) go.

You can just take a bus (less roomy, less pleasant, and apt to get stuck in the same traffic jams as cars). 

ST's Sounder commuter rail goes to some of the places Link will eventually go to. But those trains only run a few times a day, only at the start and end of "business hours." To run them more often would require leasing more time slots on the BNSF tracks Sounder uses (which BNSF has been reluctant to provide in the past). And the Sounder North line is regularly disabled by landslides along the Puget Sound coastline north of Edmonds. 

No, light rail is its own thing, with its own, increasingly popular, benefits. 

People want it because it helps people get places faster. 

Even if it takes seemingly forever for the tracks themselves to get anywhere.

CLARK HUMPHREY is the author of "Walking Seattle" and "Vanishing Seattle." He also writes a blog at miscmedia.com. To comment on this column, write to QAMagNews@nwlink.com