Digging is 1st sign light rail is coming to town

Sound Transit doesn't plan to close the downtown Seattle bus tunnel to retrofit it for light rail until fall. But some of the most visible work to bring rail downtown already has begun, or will start soon.

Construction crews this week began tearing up pavement on Pine Street near the Paramount Theatre, the first step toward digging a new stub tunnel where trains will turn around at the rail line's north end.

The Seattle Transportation Department, meanwhile, plans to start work within a month on $6 million worth of street projects aimed at keeping downtown traffic — especially buses — moving when the tunnel shuts down for up to two years Sept. 24.

When that happens, about 140 buses that use the tunnel each weekday between 4:30 and 5:30 p.m., the busiest hour, will be rerouted to the surface, increasing the total number of north-south buses on downtown streets by more than 20 percent.

"The challenge is how to get buses in and out of downtown efficiently," said Jon Layzer, the city's Sound Transit program manager.

Buses are scheduled to return to the tunnel when it reopens in 2007, then share it with trains when the light-rail line opens two years later.

It will be the northernmost leg of the 14-mile rail route from Tukwila through Rainier Valley to downtown's Westlake Center.

The bus tunnel was built under Third Avenue in the late 1980s, disrupting downtown. At a briefing for reporters yesterday, Sound Transit and Seattle officials said the impact of the tunnel-retrofit work won't be nearly as great. Most will be underground and out of sight.

The stub tunnel under Pine Street is an exception. On Sunday, crews closed the north side of the street between Seventh and Terry avenues, squeezing all traffic onto the south side and eliminating the only eastbound lane.

Pine will have just two westbound lanes in that area until October 2006, said Stephanie Kirby, Sound Transit's deputy construction manager. One of those lanes will be closed at times.

Over the next six months crews will dig a 2-1/2-block-long trench under Pine from the surface. The trench will be covered with a temporary deck so traffic can travel overhead while tunnel work continues below.

"Our commitment is to do the work with the least possible impact," Sound Transit spokesman Geoff Patrick said.

Piles will be drilled into the ground with quieter auguring equipment, rather than pile drivers. Kiosks with information on affected businesses will be installed on sidewalks.

But those efforts haven't satisfied at least one neighbor. Pande Cameron, a carpet store at Ninth Avenue and Pine Street, is moving and has filed a lawsuit against Sound Transit. It charges, among other things, that the agency effectively has taken the company's property without compensation.

"They can't do business there," said James Klauser, one of Pande Cameron's lawyers.

The street projects the city plans to build to accommodate more buses on the surface downtown are part of a $16 million program to keep traffic flowing while the tunnel is closed.

The street changes include:

• Limiting traffic on Third Avenue almost exclusively to buses during morning and evening peak periods. Cars will be allowed to turn right onto Third during those hours but must turn right again at the next possible intersection.

• Adding a northbound bus-only lane to Ninth Avenue — now one-way southbound — between Olive Way and Stewart Street, to help buses get downtown from Interstate 5.

• Reserving one lane of one-way, eastbound Olive Way for buses and right-turning traffic during peak periods to help buses get to I-5 from downtown.

• Providing a more convenient route for buses into the south end of downtown by adding a northbound, bus-only lane to Fifth Avenue South between South Jackson and South Washington streets, where it's now one-way southbound.

In addition, one-way northbound Prefontaine Place South will be straightened and reserved for buses during peak periods.

But even with those fixes, Sound Transit and Metro studies indicate, most buses that are rerouted from the tunnel to the surface will take six to seven minutes longer to get through downtown.

Eric Pryne: 206-464-2231 or epryne@seattletimes.com