Sound Transit bid comes in 12% lower than estimate

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Sound Transit officials were all smiles yesterday after the apparent low bid on a major light-rail construction contract came in 12 percent under the agency's estimate.

Balfour Beatty Construction of Atlanta bid $82.7 million to retrofit the downtown Seattle bus tunnel for joint rail-bus use — nearly $11 million less than Sound Transit's estimate.

The contract, which includes construction of a short, dead-end tunnel under Pine Street, is a major component of Sound Transit's $2.44 billion, 14-mile light-rail line from downtown Seattle to Tukwila. Light-rail director Ahmad Fazel said the low bid for the tunnel work will keep the project on budget and on schedule to open in 2009.

Just six weeks ago, another light-rail bid opening left Sound Transit's leaders disappointed. The low bid to build two stations and a tunnel through Beacon Hill came in at $280 million, 17 percent above the agency's estimate.

At the time, Fazel attributed that outcome partly to a lack of competition. The Beacon Hill contract drew just two bidders.

"When I found we had five bids (for the downtown tunnel), I knew we were going to have good competition," Fazel said yesterday.

If Balfour Beatty gets the downtown-tunnel job, it will be the fifth of six major construction contracts to be awarded at a lower cost than Sound Transit had predicted. So far, construction is 3 percent under budget, said Martin Schachenmayr, project-control officer.

The agency plans to apply any savings from the project toward extending a light-rail line from downtown toward the University District.

Preliminary work on the new Pine Street stub tunnel between Seventh and Terry avenues could start in about four months, Fazel said. That tunnel will provide space for trains to turn around.

The 15-year-old bus tunnel under Third Avenue is scheduled to close for 21 months in September 2005. Workers will install new rails, overhead electrical wires, sprinklers and a signal system to keep buses and trains separated.

They also will lower the roadbed in the stations by 6 inches so passengers will be able to walk or wheel themselves directly from the platform onto rail cars and new, low-floor buses.

The bus tunnel originally wasn't scheduled to close until 2007. When Sound Transit moved up the schedule earlier this year — over the objections of businesses worried about the impact of more buses on city streets — Chief Executive Joni Earl said the change could reduce construction costs.

Yesterday's bid opening shows that decision was wise, Fazel said. If nothing else, "two additional years of inflation would have been added to the project (costs)," he said.

Balfour Beatty's projects include a toll road between Austin and San Antonio, Texas, and seismic retrofits of several Bay Area bridges, including the Golden Gate. The firm has an office in Seattle.

Eric Pryne: 206-464-2231 or