Sound Transit is almost done building its first line from Seattle to Tukwila, but there's still some drama over whether it will open exactly on July 3, as promised.

Share story

Sound Transit is almost done building its first line from Seattle to Tukwila, but there’s still some drama over whether it will open exactly on July 3, as promised.

When construction began five years ago, the schedule included 180 days of “float,” a cushion in case things went wrong. The float is now zero, says a January progress report published this month

The most difficult part of the route is a one-mile Beacon Hill Tunnel, which includes an underground station 165 feet deep, and an elevated station near Franklin High School.

Progress was delayed by soil slides, an investigation into a fatal construction accident, occasional slowdowns with the tunnel-boring machine, and strained relations between transit and contractor officials. December snow is blamed for wiping out the last nine days of cushion.

This week, save 90% on digital access.

Ahmad Fazel, the light-rail director, continues to vouch for the July 3 deadline, barring some calamity. “I’m not an oddsmaker, I’m not in Vegas right now. I’m saying, right now, the project stands to be open on time,” he said. Even if it doesn’t, Sound Transit has apparently succeeded in meeting the project budget of $2.4 billion to reach Tukwila. If current trends hold, there will be about $125 million in unspent reserves left over, to be spent on extensions to Northgate or Federal Way.

Schedules are especially sensitive to Sound Transit, because of the agency’s troubled early history. In 1996, voters approved a 21-mile project from Seattle’s University District to Seattle-Tacoma International Airport, but costs doubled, causing delays. Its credibility shaken, Sound Transit nearly collapsed.

Elected officials running the agency split the light-rail plan in two, to build the southern end first, in hopes it would create momentum for more. They guessed correctly; voters last fall approved suburban lines to be finished by the early 2020s, and the agency held a groundbreaking ceremony last week for a tunnel to Husky Stadium.

Meanwhile, the Beacon Hill Tunnel schedule is going down to the wire — crews are stringing overhead lines that power the trains in one of the twin tunnel tubes. Work is under way 24 hours a day, said Fazel.

Millions of dollars are being spent to reach the finish line:

• Tunnel contractor Obayashi has been offered new incentives of up to $2.7 million, to finish certain jobs quickly, so electrical and signal contractors can gain access. The initial $280 million contract is now $303 million, and will increase a few million more to cover cost-of-living pay raises for union workers and expected claims by Obayashi.

• GETS, the signal contractor, took a $3.8 million pay boost, for the inconvenience of performing work around the tunnel crews.

• PB Americas, which monitors the tunnel’s quality control, will get $3 million extra because work is extended through May.

If delays occur, they would likely be measured in days or weeks, rather than a prolonged wait for the public to ride the trains. The line is more than 96 percent finished, and train testing is under way.

In the Federal Transit Administration’s view, the job is “under budget and on time,” said spokesman Paul Griffo.

The next two miles, to the airport, are supposed to open Dec. 31.

Mike Lindblom: 206-515-5631 or

Custom-curated news highlights, delivered weekday mornings.