More than 15 years ago, Sound Transit took the voter-approved initiative to construct the region’s first light rail with strategically located stations along Martin Luther King Jr. Way in hopes of sparking development. Real estate companies rushed to the scene, envisioning a booming market for apartments and shops that downtown workers could move into or commute to work from on the light rail in South Seattle.

For low-income, communities of color along this pathway, there was a promise of a convenient and inexpensive form of transportation in addition to apprehension about the housing prices and the threat of gentrification.
“The routing and alignment is what it is to serve the communities,” said Bruce Gray, a spokesman for Sound Transit. “We went down the valley because we want to serve that market of people who are relying on transit.”

Flash forward to 2012 and Sound Transit reports a significant participation jump at the Rainier Valley stations. In the past year, the Othello station has seen a 22 percent ridership bump. Columbia City and Mount Baker Stations are experiencing 13 and 17 percent ridership increases, respectively. Rainier Beach is at a 10 percent jump. In comparison, ridership growth at other stations is in the single digits: 7 percent each at the Westlake and SeaTac Airport stations.

Gray said that it is unusual to see that growth persists four years after the link opened; most cities see their ridership level off within a year, as it generally has with the downtown and airport stations. Gray said the link started largely as a commuter link for downtown workers, but is now expanding.

“The ORCA integration has been slow to take hold,” he said. “A lot more of the non-English speaking population has been slower to adapt to it.”

But with the threat of gentrification in the air, is the surge in ridership in the Rainier Valley from communities of color that have traditionally lived in the area?

According to a report released earlier this year by Puget Sound Sage, the light rail is displacing low-income residents from the Rainier Valley as a result of rising property values.

One frequent rider of the link is Shuk Ching Lau. She catches the train every day at the Othello Station and, in a mere 10 minutes, is at the QFC in the Mount Baker neighborhood where she is an employee, avoiding all the troubles of parking, $4 of gas and traffic.

Riders taking the light rail in South Seattle. Photo credit: Atia Musazay.
Riders taking the light rail in South Seattle. Photo credit: Atia Musazay.

Shuk Chin Lau said she chose to ride the train because of the close proximity to her home and because she has never had any problems riding it and using the ORCA card. As an immigrant from Hong Kong, she said the train is a familiar form of transportation she feels comfortable using, noting the ethnic diversity of the passengers she rides with, any one from African and Asian students heading to community college to other blue collar workers.

“Ridership on the light rail reflects the ethnic composition of the neighborhoods,” said Wayne Lau, executive director of the Rainier Valley Community Development Fund, which works to preserve the diversity of the region by maintaining the cost of living.

Wayne Lau said he disagreed with the Puget Sound Sage report, maintaining that displacement has not occurred in any major way. He estimated ridership of people of color to be around 50 percent, and said the light rail meets the needs of the Rainer Valley community and is “definitely benefiting.”

“We’ve been successful in helping businesses not be affected by rising rates. Seattle is unique because of the level of comfort we have with diversity and we want to preserve this,” said Lau.

Mona Lee, an advocate for the light rail in the ‘90s and co-founder of Whistle Stop Co-op, believes the light rail has improved MLK Way in many ways. It’s made the street safer by doing away with previous intersection accidents she would frequently witness. It has been an advertising tool for the local businesses because train passengers can easily see their signs, said Lee. For those without cars, particularly the low-income dwellers, it is very convenient. The street in general looks aesthetically more appealing, she said.
“We hoped everyone would use it, and that’s exactly what happened,” said Lee. “We have everyone using it … people carrying suitcases to high-paying jobs downtown and others to their downtown janitorial jobs. It really helps the image of public transportation.”

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