Seventeen years ago, the old Metro Council made a last-minute decision to install rails in the bus tunnel it was building under downtown...

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Seventeen years ago, the old Metro Council made a last-minute decision to install rails in the bus tunnel it was building under downtown Seattle so the tube wouldn’t need to be closed years later to be converted to light rail.

Today, everyone knows the council was wrong — the rails weren’t insulated adequately to prevent stray electric current from trains from corroding nearby utility lines. With light rail under construction at last, Sound Transit last month shut down the tunnel for up to two years to — among other things — rip out the rails Metro spent $5 million putting in.

Metro records indicate the agency eliminated much of the insulation in the original rail design to save money. A King County audit in 1998 — the same year Sound Transit consultants reported the insulation problem — concluded that Metro managers knew before the rails were installed that they might need to be replaced, but didn’t fully inform the Metro Council.

The cutbacks on insulation saved Metro less than $1.5 million. Sound Transit and other agencies are spending more than $45 million to retrofit the tunnel and deal with the closure’s consequences.

Could the shutdown have been avoided if the rails hadn’t been a problem?

No, said Sound Transit light-rail director Ahmad Fazel. The tube needs major work to comply with regulations that weren’t on the books when it opened in 1990, he said.

“That sort of makes the rails academic, doesn’t it?” said David Kalberer, who supervised the original tunnel project for Metro.

But two longtime regional transportation policymakers say Sound Transit’s decision to close the tunnel would have been a closer call if the rails had been usable.

In that case, the Sound Transit board would have looked for a way to do the other tunnel work at night or on weekends, or at least shorten the shutdown’s duration, said former board member and former King County Councilwoman Cynthia Sullivan.

“It’s very frustrating,” said Sullivan, who was on the Metro Council when it voted to install the rails in 1988. “The engineers assured us then that this was a reasonable business decision. Ten years later, it proved not to be.”

Former Metro, federal and state transportation official Aubrey Davis was among the first to call for rails in the tunnel 17 years ago. Sound Transit might have had a more difficult time justifying its decision to lower the tunnel roadway to allow level train boarding — a big part of the work now under way — if it hadn’t needed to dig up the roadway anyway to replace the rails, he said.

“They put in rails, but they didn’t put them in right,” Davis said. “That was a shortcut that was a mistake.”

Six weeks to decide

From the start, Metro designed the 1.3-mile downtown bus tunnel to accommodate light rail someday. The tube’s dimensions were larger than those required for buses, and the station platforms long enough to handle four-car trains.

The original plans didn’t include rails, however, because policymakers concluded light rail was too far in the future to warrant the investment.

The notion of adding rails to the bus tunnel before it was finished first surfaced in early 1988, as political momentum for light rail began to build in the region. Tunnel construction already was well under way; Kalberer told Metro Council members in March of that year that they had just six weeks to make a decision without affecting the project’s construction schedule.

While Metro management was “initially resistant” to rails, according to the 1998 King County audit, many Metro Council members embraced the idea. They believed it would avoid a tunnel shutdown years later, according to news accounts and meeting minutes.

“We want to avoid the added cost and potential service disruptions that are likely if we wait … ” then-Seattle City Councilman Norm Rice told a congressional subcommittee in 1988.

Kalberer told council members at pivotal meetings that April that there was no clear financial advantage to installing rails immediately. It was a policy decision, he said.

But he gave the proposal his backing. “Waiting could potentially disrupt service once the tunnel has started operation,” he said. Staff reports to the council on rail installation over the next year repeated that argument.

According to meeting minutes, Kalberer, other Metro staff members and consultants also repeatedly assured council members in 1988 and 1989 that obsolescence wasn’t a concern. With rails in place, they said, the tunnel could be converted to light rail relatively quickly and with little disruption.

“We thought we were doing the right thing for the future,” former King County Councilwoman Lois North, a Metro Council member in 1988 and 1989, said last week.

“Not fully informed”

Early in 1989, according to Metro records and the 1998 audit, Metro officials learned from consultants that installing the rails as originally designed would push the project $1.2 million over budget. The project engineer suggested cuts, including reducing the insulation, that ultimately were adopted.

The changes shaved $1.5 million from the project’s costs. Kalberer told the Metro Council’s tunnel subcommittee in April 1989 that consultants had concluded the cuts would have “no negative impacts.”

Four months later — still before the rails were installed — another Metro consultant retained to troubleshoot the project raised concerns about the scaled-back insulation. But according to the King County audit, which Sullivan requested in 1998 after the rail problem came to light, those concerns “were considered by Metro management and deferred until the light-rail system was implemented.”

“Metro staff was aware of the need for substantial future modifications of the rail, including potential rail replacement,” the audit concluded. The Metro Council, however, “was not fully informed,” the auditors wrote.

Kalberer, now a Seattle consultant, said last week that he hasn’t seen the audit or reviewed bus-tunnel records in 15 years. He said he doesn’t recall details of the insulation cuts.

But he said he and his tunnel staff were assured by consultants that the rails would be usable.

“It’s useful to remember that the bus tunnel was built just for that — a bus tunnel,” Kalberer said. “We had a certain amount of money. We were asked to put in rail. What we did was discussed and found to be acceptable.”

Tunnel plans

In addition to installing new rails and lowering the roadway floor 6 inches while the tunnel is closed, Sound Transit also is improving the tunnel’s emergency ventilation and fire sprinklers and upgrading the electrical and mechanical systems.

The price tag: More than $29 million, not including new power and communications and signal systems to accommodate both light rail and buses.

The tunnel’s closure has pushed buses that carry tens of thousands of commuters each weekday back onto downtown streets. The city, King County and Sound Transit are spending another $16 million on street improvements and other measures to help keep traffic moving.

The tunnel is expected to reopen to buses by late 2007. Trains are scheduled to arrive in 2009.

Sound Transit must comply with the federal Americans with Disabilities Act, which hadn’t been passed when the tunnel was built. The agency maintains it’s required to provide level boarding, either by lowering the roadway floor or raising the platform heights.

Spokesman Geoff Patrick said possible alternatives, such as retractable ramps or lifts, never were discussed with the federal government, because Sound Transit knew it would have to tear up the roadway to replace the rails anyway. Those approaches would have been impractical, light-rail director Fazel said.

He also said Sound Transit would have needed to shut down the tunnel just to do the work required to meet new fire codes.

But Sullivan, who served on the Sound Transit board until two years ago, said she would have resisted staff’s recommendation to close the tunnel and searched for alternatives — if only the rails hadn’t needed to be replaced.

The money Metro saved by reducing insulation in 1989 is “chicken feed” compared with what’s being spent to retrofit the tunnel and deal with the closure’s impact now, she said: “If the track had been put in right, the tunnel might not have been closed so long.”

Former King County Councilman Bruce Laing sat on the Metro Council’s tunnel subcommittee in 1988 and 1989, and later was a member of the Sound Transit board. When that panel learned the rails were unusable, “that was a real shocker,” he said last week. “There was a lot of ill feeling and disappointment.”

When the bus tunnel opened in 1990, he said, he and other members of the Metro tunnel subcommittee were given small chunks of rail to commemorate their vision and foresight. Now, he said, “I may want to go bury it.”

Eric Pryne: 206-464-2231 or