Sound Transit takes ownership of aging downtown Seattle tunnel

More than three years after buses were evicted from Seattle’s distinctive transit tunnel, the 1.3-mile passage will finally become the property of Sound Transit, which promises to fix the four worn-out stations for light-rail customers.

Sound Transit’s governing board voted 13-0 on Thursday, with five members absent, to take over tunnel ownership from King County Metro.

Metro is handing off the tunnel at no cost, but Sound Transit has planned a $96 million investment for upgrades, not just for new escalators and elevators, but also to fix utility lines, broken floor and wall sections, and soiled artworks.

Seattle Mayor Bruce Harrell emphasized the tunnel also needs better lighting, graffiti removal and security. Sound Transit should be transparent about the task ahead and its obligation to improve rider experience, he said.

“This is a momentous date, and I join in celebrating and supporting it,” said Harrell, a member of the transit board.

Completed in 1990 at a cost of $486 million, the Seattle tunnel initially served specialized Italian buses that cruised below downtown on electric wires, but also had retractable poles for diesel operations outside the city core. They were replaced later by hybrid diesel-electric buses that could traverse the tunnel on mainly clean battery power. Seattle made history with North America’s only transit tunnel that combined both buses and trains from 2009 to 2019, except for Pittsburgh’s stationless Mount Washington Transit Tunnel.

About 570 daily bus trips moved up to Seattle streets in March 2019, displaced by convention center construction and growing frequency and ridership on light rail. Bus riders often faced slower trips in surface traffic. Since then, the busy Metro Route 41 to Northgate has been replaced by a light-rail extension last October, giving thousands of riders a quick passage to Northgate and the University District.

King County’s original construction debt is paid off with help from $87 million in Sound Transit payments — another reason Thursday’s deal is for zero dollars.

The two agencies also agreed to earmark up to $50 million of tunnel advertising revenue to fund low-income fare discounts.

Metro will continue to operate and maintain the trains as a Sound Transit contractor.

For the past few years, travelers constantly complained about broken escalators and elevators, which King County and Sound Transit failed to replace in the 2010s as they neared the end of a 30-year lifespan. Sound Transit took over the conveyances in 2021 with a new maintenance contractor, Schindler.

Their goal is to keep the old parts at least 70% reliable, until all 58 vertical conveyances are replaced. That could take years, with the first eight scheduled at International District/Chinatown Station during winter 2023-24. As of September, the downtown escalators were 71% working, and elevators 85% working, the agency’s tracker says.

Sound Transit can’t just fasten new components, but must also reengineer the surrounding tunnel area and deliver parts into areas where space can be tight, said Suraj Shetty, executive director of operations.

Downtown’s Westlake Station, formerly the busiest stop on the 1 Line, served about 9,600 daily passengers boarding trains as of August, down from its late-2010s peak near 15,000. Overall, 1 Line use is around 80,000 per day and gradually rebounding in 2022. In rebuilding transit ridership, the community must surmount COVID-related health worries, office closures as people work from home, and problems that range from open drug use on downtown sidewalks to a March incident when a man threw a commuting nurse down station stairs.

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