Tunnel Vision

City Council hands over transit tunnel.

It wasn't so long ago—less than a year—that the King County Council was taking a hard line with Sound Transit, imposing tough conditions on the light-rail agency's takeover of the downtown transit tunnel.

What a difference a year can make. On Monday, over the objections of light-rail skeptics Nick Licata and Judy Nicastro, the Seattle City Council signed off on an agreement—already signed by the county and Sound Transit—allowing joint use of the tunnel by light rail and Metro buses. Assuming light rail moves forward, the tunnel, which runs beneath Third Avenue for just over a mile, will be shut down for two years to be refurbished for joint use, and used by buses and trains until Sound Transit takes the tunnel over completely, once light rail makes it to Northgate.

The tunnel transfer has made some strange bedfellows, linking liberal Seattle reps Nicastro and Licata to Bellevue Republican Rob McKenna, a King County Council member and outspoken light-rail opponent. For Republicans like McKenna, the tunnel issue boils down to equity: The vast majority of people served by the tunnel are traveling to and from suburban districts like the one he represents. When the tunnel gets turned over to light rail around 2020, it will primarily serve people traveling within the city. But other questions about the tunnel remain, disturbingly, unanswered. Whether buses and rail can coexist in the downtown tunnel is a question that troubles Licata, who notes that in its original 1998 study, Sound Transit rejected joint operations because of concerns about safety, speed, and reliability. Once Sound Transit determined it was no longer financially feasible to turn the tunnel over immediately, Licata says, "they changed their minds." Now, Sound Transit estimates that 60 buses and 10 trains will be able to run through the tunnel in each direction every hour. Others call that estimate wildly optimistic, noting that no city has ever run light rail and buses together in the same facility. "There are good reasons why people don't normally do this type of thing," McKenna says.

Business groups like the Downtown Seattle Association also note that the tunnel transfer will move, at least temporarily, dozens of buses back onto Third, creating a potential traffic nightmare on the surface. Sound Transit's figures show that once the tunnel reopens, the number of buses on Third will be about the same (470 during afternoon rush hour) as it is today; Sane Transit's numbers show that Third would have to handle 34 percent more, mainly because they assume bus service will continue to grow at 2 percent to 3 percent a year.

But the main reason the city and county should slow down on the tunnel agreement is that light rail, despite all the appearance of forward motion, may not even happen. That's something Licata attempted to address with two amendments to the tunnel transfer deal, both of which failed. One would have conditioned the handover on a $500 million grant that Sound Transit is seeking from the federal government; the other would have required the transit agency to secure funding to get its line to Northgate before it could take over the tunnel.

Erica C. Barnett


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