Sound Transit takes over aging downtown Seattle tunnel

ByShannon J. Cortes

Oct 28, 2022

More than three years after buses were evicted from Seattle’s distinctive transit tunnel, the 1.3-mile passage will finally be become the property of Sound Transitwhich promises to repair the four worn-out stations for light rail customers.

The Sound Transit board of directors voted 13-0 Thursday, with five members absent, to regain ownership of the King County Metro tunnel.

Metro gives away the tunnel for free, but Sound Transit has planned an investment of $96 million for upgrades, not only for new escalators and elevators, but also to repair power lines, broken floor and wall sections, and stained artwork.

Seattle Mayor Bruce Harrell said the tunnel also needed better lighting, graffiti removal and security. Sound Transit should be transparent about the task at hand and its obligation to improve the passenger experience, he said.

“This is a momentous date, and I join in celebrating and supporting it,” said Harrell, a transit board member.

Completed in 1990 at a cost of $486 million, the Seattle Tunnel initially served specialized Italian buses which sailed under the city center on power wires, but also had retractable poles for diesel operations outside the city center. They were later replaced by diesel-electric hybrid buses that could drive through the tunnel mostly on their own battery. Seattle made history with North America’s only transit tunnel that combined both buses and trains from 2009 to 2019, except for the stationless Pittsburgh Mount Washington Transit Tunnel.

About 570 daily bus trips moved to the streets of Seattle in March 2019, moved by construction of a congress center and increasing frequency and light rail traffic. Bus riders often faced slower journeys in surface traffic. Since then, the busy Metro Route 41 to Northgate was replaced with a light rail extension last October, providing thousands of passengers with fast passage to Northgate and the University District.

King County’s original construction debt is being paid off with the help of $87 million in payments from Sound Transit – another reason Thursday’s deal is zero dollars.

The two agencies also agreed to allocate up to $50 million in funnel advertising revenue to fund rate reductions for low-income people.

Metro will continue to operate and maintain the trains as a contractor to Sound Transit.

In recent years, travelers have consistently complained of broken escalators and elevators, which King County and Sound Transit failed to replace in the 2010s as they neared the end of a lifespan of 30 years. Sound Transit took over the means of transport in 2021 with a new maintenance contractor, Schindler.

Their objective is to maintain the reliability of the old parts at at least 70%, until the 58 vertical conveyors are replaced. It could take years, with the the first eight scheduled at International District/Chinatown Station during winter 2023-24. In September, downtown escalators were running at 71% and elevators at 85%, the said the agency tracker.

Sound Transit cannot only attach new components, but must also rearrange the surrounding tunnel area and deliver parts to areas where space may be tight, said Suraj Shetty, executive director of operations.

City center Westlake station, formerly the busiest stop on Line 1, served around 9,600 daily passengers on trains in August, down from its peak in the late 2010s of almost 15 000. Overall, Line 1 usage is around 80,000 per day and gradually rebounds in 2022. To rebuild transit ridership, the community must overcome COVID-related health concerns, office closures as people work from home and issues that range from open drug use on downtown sidewalks to a march incident when a man threw a traveling nurse down the stairs from the station.