Getting Ready for Rails

Sound Transit is on time and under budget—if you don't count the first five years.

The steamed-up Sound Transit coach lurched away from Union Station at 11 a.m. sharp. Destination: photo ops and story spins. "The 2006 Rolling Stop Tour," someone muttered as we headed into our first traffic jam of the day, at the Interstate 5 on-ramp. The blue-and-white bus brimmed with transit and construction honchos and a small volunteer army of embedded reporters, photographers, and editors. The media were along to witness the agency's progress in eliminating gridlock as we know it. In hard hats and boots, the keyboard tappers seemed a dastardly version of the Village People.

Yet the incongruous busload did not appear strange to civilians waiting at transit stops. They jumped and waved frantically as we roared past, certain they had missed their ride. At one stop, a woman banged on the doors and yelled, "Hey, hey!" She couldn't comprehend that—as the bus' lighted destination sign said—we were bound for someplace "Special."

Or Sound Transit's concept of it, at least, since our first stop was Tukwila. This is the south terminus of Sound Transit's $2.4 billion Central Link light-rail line, scheduled to arrive within three years, more or less, in downtown Seattle (where trains will stop abruptly, turn around, and return). There is a skeletal beginning of station framing and a quarter-mile of elevated track. But to the agency, Tukwila is a rapid-transit theme park. For admission, media types each had to ink a paper agreeing not to sue the construction contractor should someone drop a beam on us. In return, officials confidently showcased the ongoing construction progress while tossing out some hard hat–speak to chew over. "Typicals" and "piers," for example, are concrete forms laced together to create elevated decking for light rail. Most are typical—get it? But pier segments also have stubby legs and attach to the columns that hold up the elevated trackway, laid down by a 384-foot mobile truss weighing 513 tons.

A few other numbers: Tukwila is the start of nearly 14 miles of Link track—seven miles "at grade," or ground level, 4.4 miles elevated, 2.5 miles of tunnels—and 12 stations. While the popular, and free, 1.6-mile Tacoma Link—shortest light-rail line in North America—is already in service, Seattle's Central Link will not be rolling until summer 2009. A 1.7-mile extension from Tukwila to Seattle-Tacoma International Airport is scheduled to open by fall 2009.

Thing is, 2009 was once the target date of the Seattle Monorail Project, too. As we reboarded the coach and bounced merrily along the rail route, it was clear Sound Transit learned at least one thing from the failed monorail dream: Turn some dirt before the bill arrives. Sound Transit's latest ridership, revenue, and gridlock-relief predictions dwell on the rosy side, but Central Link is fully funded through federal money, sales tax, and expected license-plate receipts. Officials hope that media-conveyed scenes of development—Link is one-third done, they say—will stoke public support for a $1.7 billion downtown–to–University District extension planned for the next decade, followed by a $1.2 billion extension to Northgate and, who knows, before your children die, a $4 billion Eastside Link. Interest and cost overruns excluded.

Sound Transit's express-bus and heavy-rail projects have mostly succeeded, but the light-rail system proposed in the Sound Move regional transit plan approved by voters in 1996 was to stretch 21 miles at a cost of $2.36 billion — around the current price tag for just the 14-mile segment.

The legality of the motor vehicle excise tax is still tied up in the state Supreme Court, and "if we lose," says Sound Transit communications chief Ric Ilgenfritz, sitting behind me, "those future segments are off the table," at least temporarily. Officials have not yet announced a full funding plan but are likely to go to voters in November seeking more tax support for a variety of projects, perhaps in the billions of dollars. The polls will be a telling test of public sentiment and Sound Transit's prospects. The agency is also seeking $700 million in federal transportation money for the all-underground University line from Westlake Center downtown to Husky Stadium. No one can say what the taxpayer tab in new costs will be. Critics call the tunneling to the U District unnecessary and sure to incur costly overruns. A First Hill station has been scrapped, leaving one stop, Capitol Hill, in the midst of a three-mile trip. As the monorail mortally learned, public support collapses if government is inept or deceptive and falters on promises. Sound Transit's express-bus and heavy-rail projects have mostly succeeded, but the light-rail system proposed in the Sound Move regional transit plan approved by voters in 1996 was to stretch 21 miles at a cost of $2.36 billion—around the current price tag for just the 14-mile segment. It also was to be in operation today. Reorganized after cost projections imploded, and having fudged the starting point forward, the "new" Sound Transit can claim light-rail construction is now on time and budget. "We are actually running $200 million under budget at this moment," affable Link Director Ahmad Fazel told me. Still, a transit citizens panel in January said the agency has clearly not budgeted all future costs and was lowballing projections. Will there be an Implosion II?

The media bus meandered through the Rainier Valley, along the Link construction war zone of Martin Luther King Jr. Way South. Homes and businesses are being removed—rails will run down the middle of MLK—to enable a two-lane widening of the street. A construction boss hopped aboard to relate "some challenges" with contamination (such as old gas station underground tanks) and "some issues" with sewage (heavy rains recently backed up the outflow at eight nearby homes, requiring the agency to book residents into hotels). We pushed on to inspect the crater off Beacon Avenue South that will eventually be a 165-foot elevator ride to a set of rail tunnels below. Downtown, a "stub" tunnel is being carved out beneath Pine Street to provide turn-around space for light-rail cars in the Downtown Seattle Transit Tunnel, closed two years for an $82 million retrofit. But Beacon Hill is the big bore, two parallel tunnels reaching through a mile of terra firma. Joe Gildner, Link deputy director, says the tunnel dig is part of what makes this transportation project spectacular, and, for him, "keeps the old adrenalin pumping." But we had to imagine the thrill of boring work. At the cut site off Airport Way South in SoDo, the head of the football-field-long tunneling machine was buried within the hill. Deputy construction boss Dick Sage told me the machine inches forward on command of an operator located about 10 yards behind the 21-foot-round drill head. "Not much of a view," he deadpanned as we headed for the bus. But, as Sound Transit ought to know, there's no light at the start of a tunnel.

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