Who says there’s no such thing as a free ride?
Thousands of people got one Saturday, clamoring aboard a double-decker Sounder train amid a carnival-like atmosphere for a chance to ride into Pierce County history.
The first public voyages along the Sound Transit commuter line’s long-awaited Lakewood extension drew hordes of would-be commuters – if only for an afternoon – who took advantage of fare-less rides between Tacoma and Lakewood and scores of other freebies along the way to mark the occasion.
“It was totally cool,” said John Tucker, a Lake Stevens resident in the area on business, after stepping off the inaugural train from Lakewood as it glided into Tacoma’s Freighthouse Square. “I think this is going to be a boon for the people of Lakewood.”
Never mind that it took 16 years and some $325 million before the party could happen. Such details seemed miles away from most passengers, who gathered beneath an unseasonal October sun to enjoy the event’s fanfare – and a smooth, punctual ride between stations. More than a few came for a dry run of sorts, preparing for a new commuter reality come Monday.
“I’m excited,” said Traci Murphy, a Lakewood resident and regular Sounder rider who commutes daily to Seattle. For Murphy, the new extension means she’ll no longer need to bus or drive from her home to Tacoma each day just to catch the northbound train.
“It just makes things so much more convenient for me,” she said.
Saturday’s celebration kicked off in the late morning at the glistening new Lakewood Station just off Pacific Highway Southwest, where a four-level park-and-ride garage spilled over capacity before a Stryker color guard from Joint Base Lewis-McChord presented the U.S. flag to open festivities.
Local dignitaries gave speeches and cut a ribbon before a cannon blasted white, green, blue and aquamarine confetti – the Sounder’s thematic color scheme – over throngs of passengers, who then crowded onto the Lakewood run’s maiden voyage to Tacoma.
The first train departed promptly at noon, coasting exactly eight minutes later into the new South Tacoma station, where hundreds more waited to ride it. A two-minute stop preceded the last five-minute lag of the route – and to more crowds gathered at Freighthouse Square.
Then, the train headed back to do it all over again – gliding back and forth between stations for the next three hours while passengers rode for free.
There was fanfare all along the route. At Freighthouse Square, passengers scored free cake-pops frosted with a Sound Transit logo, as the Duwamish Dixieland Band belted out celebratory tunes.
At the South Tacoma Station, Zap Gridlock – Sound Transit’s traffic-fighting superhero – salsa-danced to the festive stylings of the quartet Mariachi Mexico.
And in Lakewood, a Pierce County Sheriff’s patrol car and a fire truck were proudly displayed for toddler fantasies and photo-ops alike, as the Clover Park High School Steel Drum Band lifted Calypso into the crowd.
Then, there were the freebies: the face-painting, balloon animals, conductor’s hats and Hawaiian leis. The doughnuts, kettle corn, cocoa and hot dogs.
Scores of people waited in line to claim a commemorative poster with a rendering of the new extension by railway landscape artist J. Craig Thorpe.
With her chin smeared in chocolate, 7-year-old Erica Erhardt of Puyallup sat on a bench at the Lakewood station and explained her favorite part of the day.
“Seeing all the people,” she told a reporter thoughtfully, between chomps from a cake-pop.
Nearby, her mother, Wendy Erhardt, who helped escort five kids ages 4 to 7 to the festivities, offered a second opinion: “All the treats didn’t hurt, either,” she said. “They were a highlight.”