With a few speeches and a turn of the shovel in Sodo this morning, Seattle will join two dozen other U.S. cities that either have built or plan to build modern light-rail systems.
The 14-mile, $2.44 billion Sound Transit line from Westlake Center to Tukwila will be the largest public-works project in the city since the construction of Interstate 5 in the 1960s.
Today's groundbreaking "will be seen as a moment of celebration as we begin to bring rail — not just this one route," predicted Dwight Pelz, a Sound Transit board member whose Metropolitan King County Council district includes much of the corridor.
"We're confident it will be a countywide system within 20 years. Communities across the county are going to be clamoring for rail."
However, today's milestone has also come at an enormous cost that will challenge anyone who asks the taxpayers to fund additional lines any time soon.
The elected officials who run Sound Transit probably won't dwell on that predicament today. They will celebrate seven years of perseverance despite cost overruns, neighborhood fights and lawsuits — some of them still unresolved.
When completed in 2009, the "Central Link" line will serve mainly lower-income neighborhoods, where public-housing projects are being rebuilt and expanded to put thousands within walking distance of stations.
Central Link is not just about transportation. Officials have said the line will help make Seattle a "world-class city," provide more than 4,000 construction jobs, give bus riders a more enjoyable alternative, make in-city living more attractive — and even lift the region's psyche.
Sound Transit Executive Director Joni Earl has been praised for rescuing the project after a damning federal report in 2001. Last summer, Sound Transit convinced the same federal inspectors that it possesses the skills to build the line.
"She took something that was in a pit and pulled it out remarkably. That's hard to quarrel with," said Jim Ellis, the revered Seattle civic leader who served on an influential project review committee.
"Whether it's the best possible route hinges on all kinds of speculation. But that's the game we have, and I'm glad we're doing this," Ellis said.
Critics have called the 14-mile line a "train to nowhere" because it stops short of Seattle-Tacoma International Airport and serves only a few neighborhoods. Backers reply that Denver, Salt Lake City, Dallas and other cities that built an initial line later built others.
Sound Transit's original plan called for a 21-mile line from the University District to SeaTac. Cost overruns forced the agency to scale back three years ago.
But once construction begins on the initial segment, King County Executive and Sound Transit Chairman Ron Sims has said he's confident it can be extended south to the airport and north to the University District without a tax increase.
However, no financial plan has been published to support that. Skeptics, including former Gov. Booth Gardner, have estimated that a 24-mile line from Northgate to South 200th Street in SeaTac would require up to $7 billion altogether.
"Sound Transit's fundamental mistake was letting the neighborhoods get them on the run and having to up the ante to keep the peace, and running out of money," said David Brewster, executive director of Town Hall, who nevertheless is mildly optimistic about rail transit.
Pelz believes the project will now seem real to residents.
"They're restless. They want somebody to do something. We're going to send crews into the neighborhoods and they're going to see construction."
Here's an overview of the route, from north to south:
Downtown transit tunnel
Sound Transit's trains will travel under downtown, sharing the 13-year-old tunnel with buses. Maggie Fimia of the Coalition for Effective Transportation Alternatives, which includes express bus and monorail supporters, says that plan is actually "anti-transit" because rail, which will serve mostly Seattle riders, will use tunnel capacity that could be better utilized by express buses from the suburbs.
The 1.3-mile tunnel was built with rails for future light rail. However, they weren't insulated from the ground, and the roadbed is 6 inches too high to accommodate trains and newer buses.
So Sound Transit will close the tunnel for two years for an $82 million retrofit that includes a new "stub tunnel" at Pine Street where trains can turn around. Work was scheduled to begin in 2007, but Earl has suggested a 2005 start to get the job finished before construction begins on the Seattle monorail or a replacement for the Alaskan Way Viaduct. All the buses that now use the tunnel will return to the surface during construction. There will be street, sidewalk and bus-shelter improvements to reduce the strain. The Downtown Seattle Association has opposed any tunnel closure before Sound Transit proves it can build light rail all the way to Northgate. But Ahmad Fazel, Sound Transit's light-rail director, said that as of two weeks ago, when the agency accepted a $500 million grant agreement from the Federal Transit Administration, the agency has a legally binding commitment to rebuild the tunnel, regardless of north-line timing.
Construction begins here first, in just a few days. Utility poles have already been moved to make space for train tracks next to an existing bus-only roadway. This is the easiest part of the project. Sound Transit officials say they were buoyed by construction bids that were $15 million lower than expected. That fueled speculation about whether the whole six-year project might be built under budget. "We need to wait and see," Fazel said. "It's the right type of environment for construction. Competition is high."
Beacon Hill Tunnel
Sound Transit decided to drill an expensive tunnel under Beacon Hill to reach Rainier Valley rather than taking a surface route along Dearborn Street that would have demolished more businesses or bypassing the valley entirely.
Because the line goes underground, only a few hilltop landowners will be forced out, among them the venerable South China Restaurant. In its place will be a transit plaza where elevators will descend to the boarding platforms.
Test drilling found that while the base of the hill is stable clay, the upper part is soggy and vulnerable to slides. As workers drill downward in the elevator shaft, a series of reinforcing rings will have to be set in the hill before dirt can be scooped out from inside the rings.
The main tunnel will be excavated by a boring machine that will drill from west to east for six months, then turn around and scoop out a second tube.
About 3,000 people a day would board the trains in the tunnel station. Sound Transit says a trip downtown would be 14 minutes shorter than riding the bus. However, a quicker bus route from Beacon Hill could narrow the gap by using the Sodo busway instead of lurching through the Chinatown International District.
This four-mile stretch goes through neighborhoods with many lower-income residents who ride public transit. Trains will run in a new median down Martin Luther King Jr. Way South. The road will be widened, displacing dozens of residents and small businesses. Some Vietnamese merchants say that, despite payouts from Sound Transit, so many are moving out that there is a shortage of storefronts elsewhere where they can relocate.
The route also crosses 18 streets at grade, perhaps the most controversial aspect of the project.
Surface stations are easy for pedestrians to reach. And construction is cheaper than elevated or underground lines.
But opponents ask: Why have Washington taxpayers invested millions to separate freight trains from cars with overpasses and underpasses elsewhere while Sound Transit is adding more at-grade crossings?
Sound Transit's environmental studies predict 29 accidents per year between trains and motor vehicles. In Salt Lake City, five people have died in train-auto crashes this year, fatalities officials there attribute to driver mistakes. Calgary's transit agency built rail underpasses below major road intersections. Sound Transit chose not to pursue this sort of separated system, where a subsurface "cut" removes street crossings.
"From an urban design perspective, it hasn't worked in other cities. It created a chasm in the community," said architecture manager Debora Ashland.
Sound Transit says street improvements, sidewalks, crosswalks and restrictions on left turns will make King Way safer overall. For years, the street has been "a fairly lawless corridor," said Pelz.
To keep traffic moving during construction, at least one lane will be kept open in each direction at all times.
Three valley stations will be platforms decorated with haiku, lion sculptures, ornamental stones and a pair of huge bronze magnifying glasses.
Aging public housing in the Holly Park and Rainier Vista areas is being razed so new, denser mixed-income housing can be built near the line. Portions of the valley have been rezoned and are expected to fill in, although Pelz said that may take years.
"Ten years from now, a trip on light rail from Othello (Station) to downtown Seattle is going to look like a pretty friendly commute, in a region that remains extremely congested," he said.
Train speeds will be limited to 35 mph, and the average speed will be slower with stops counted. Trains will have "signal priority." Before the train leaves each station, the driver will press a button that turns upcoming lights green.
Tukwila elevated line
Engineers recently tweaked this part of the route to reduce travel time by two minutes, to 31 minutes for the entire downtown-to-Tukwila trip.
The change addresses a key criticism of the project — that the trains would be slower than taking a bus to the airport. Sound Transit increased anticipated speeds on nearly the entire segment to 55 mph by building in banked turns and buying more land so tight curves can be flattened out.
Builders will need to cross Interstate 5, freight-train tracks and the Duwamish River. The rest of the line follows freeways on mostly state-owned land.
Shuttle buses will be provided to take people from the Tukwila station to the airport, but ridership is expected to be much lower — just 850 shuttle trips a day — than if the trains stopped at the terminal.
As recently as last week, Sound Transit reiterated its goal to get light rail to the airport by 2011.
Mike Lindblom: 206-515-5631 or email@example.com