Deafening Silence: Bus Tunnel's Done

The bus tunnel is finished, ending downtown Seattle's endurance of four years of heavy construction.

Cars, delivery trucks and buses flow smoothly along Third Avenue. Sidewalks and Westlake Mall are thronged with pedestrians who don't have to dodge workmen or follow zigzag detours around torn-up streets.

Four years and $455 million later, construction workers have moved on to their next job.

Metro's Seattle bus tunnel, the only one of its kind, is done.

Business is improving for shopkeepers and restaurant operators, although many remain angry at Metro over the problems caused by construction obstacles. Office workers no long curse muddy plywood walkways that snaked around digging machines, gaping holes and mounds of dirt.

There is a lack of construction activity, too, beneath Third Avenue and Pine Street, along the 1.3-mile route of the downtown bus tunnel. Only a few workers are in sight, fixing the items inspectors judged to be incomplete or poorly done.

With the exception of the already-open Westlake Station mezzanine, the stations appear to need only a thorough cleaning to be ready for passengers Sept. 15, when regular service will begin in the tunnel.

However, Metro expects to take months to test control systems, train its drivers, police officers and firefighters, and to await delivery of the Italian buses it has ordered for tunnel use.

Ed Hunter, a Metro engineer who's been on the tunnel job for three years, stands in the vacant two-block-long University Street Station, whose high-tech design reflects the modern office buildings on the street above.

``We're no longer finishing it,'' he said of the tunnel and five stations. ``It's finished and now the job is more like - how do we turn it on?''

To prepare to ``turn it on,'' transit operating personnel have begun to move in, and engineers have been testing the complex computer system that manages a host of subsystems in the tunnel: smoke alarms, sprinklers, telephones and other communications equipment, ventilation fans and signal lights that will control bus flow and passenger information devices.

The next big hurdle, Hunter says, is to test how well those systems work together, to be sure the computer coordinates them.

``Once we get over that and get the buses, we'll be home free,'' he said.

Hunter will never forget the time the sprinkler system didn't work as planned in a middle-of-the night test. With Seattle Fire Department inspectors and insurance officials watching, Metro engineers activated one section of the fire-sprinkler network that pumps out so much water it's known as a deluge system.

A check valve, designed to keep an adjoining section from switching on, was overwhelmed by a surge of pressure and fluttered just enough to signal the next length of deluge system to open.

Hunter and the visitors, standing in that next section, got an unexpected cold shower.

``When these things kick in there's so much water you can't see,'' Hunter said.

Metro will begin showing off bits and pieces of the tunnel project this week.

Tomorrow, it will open the gates to its Pioneer Square Station for an open house from 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. Metro also will rededicate the adjoining 65-year-old Prefontaine Place Park and fountain that was rebuilt when Third Avenue was restored.

A highlight in the station will be the display of an old ``bull wheel'' from Seattle's cable-car system. Workmen resurfacing the intersection of Third Avenue and Yesler Way earlier this year found the wheel in a buried concrete vault.

The wheel, which reversed the direction of the cable, had been hidden and idle since the Yesler Way cable line was shut down in 1940.

The agency will conduct a similar preview for the International District Station July 15, during that community's annual street fair. The Union Street Station will be open to visitors Aug. 9 and the Convention Center Station will be open during tunnel dedication ceremonies Sept. 14.

Other events are planned.

The streetcars will offer shuttle service on new track along Main Street between just-finished stations at Occidental Park, South Washington Street and Alaskan Way.

And on Monday, Metro's electric trolley buses will return to Third Avenue. They were diverted to First Avenue three years ago.

Metro and its consulting engineers estimated the tunnel cost at $415 million while design and planning were under way and before construction bids were opened. The agency now expects the gross cost to be $455 million, or slightly less than 10 percent above preliminary estimates.

The federal Urban Mass Transportation Administration contributed $197 million.

Even though Metro is proud of its work, some business owners still speak bitterly about how they were treated during construction.

Under law, Metro could not reimburse them for business lost during construction.

Vic Spino, co-owner of an office-supply store, said Metro has ignored his pleas for repair of building damage caused by construction workers.

``They've taken the attitude that if you don't scream, they won't listen,'' said his partner, Morris Scharhorn.