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Seattle Metro Tunnel

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Seattle Metro Tunnel station at Westlake. Photo by Paul Schlienz, March 2001.

Contents

Overview

Seattle's Metro Tunnel is a unique subway without trains. Instead of trains, dual-powered buses operate in the tunnel.

Dual-powered buses have both diesel engines and poles that allow buses to connect to electric power from overhead catenary wires. In the Metro Tunnel, buses run in electric mode to avoid diesel fumes and reduce noise. Outside the tunnel, these same buses revert to diesel power.

The Metro Tunnel was the first underground busway built in the United States. The tunnel is owned and operated by Metro Transit, the public transportation agency of King County, which includes Seattle and many of its suburbs. Located beneath Downtown Seattle, the Metro Tunnel can accommodate 18,000 passengers per hour.

Buses in the tunnel run nearly three times faster than buses on Downtown Seattle streets. Although Seattle is notorious for its traffic congestion, the Metro Tunnel has contributed positively to traffic flow by providing an alternate route for many buses that would otherwise clog surface streets.

The tunnel is shared by buses belonging to Metro Transit and Sound Transit, the regional transportation authority created in 1996 to provide mass transit throughout the Puget Sound metropolitan area. Buses using the tunnel include Metro routes 41 (Northgate), 71 (Wedgewood), 73 (Jackson Park), 101 (Renton Park & Ride), 106 (Renton Park & Ride), 150 (Auburn via Kent), 176 (Twin Lakes Express), 177 (Federal Way Park & Ride Express), 178 (Twin Lakes Park & Ride Express), 190 (Star Lake Park & Ride), 194 (Federal Way via Sea-Tac), 196 (South Federal Way Park & Ride Express), 212 (Eastgate Park & Ride), 225 (Overlake), 229 (Overlake), 255 (Kingsgate), 256 (Overlake), 258 (Finn Hill), 266 (Redmond), 301 (Richmond Beach), 306 (Woodinville via Kenmore & Bothell), 307 (Woodinville via Northgate), and 312 (Woodinville via Kenmore & Bothell). Route 550 (Bellevue via I-90 Express) is the only Sound Transit bus in the tunnel.

Opened in 1990, after nearly four years of construction t a cost of $466 million, the Metro Tunnel is 1.3 miles long and has five stations. All tunnel stations have elevators and are fully ADA compliant.

The tunnel's 236 dual-powered buses were built in Italy. The buses are the same fleet in use when the tunnel opened in 1990. Each bus is articulated and equipped with a wheelchair lift.

The tunnel has impressive safety and security features. In addition to security personnel who patrol the facility, stations and other tunnel areas are monitored by closed circuit television. All stations have emergency telephone systems with direct links to the tunnel communications center. Automatic fire detection and suppression systems are found in each station and all other parts of the tunnel.

Shortly after the Metro Tunnel's opening, a ground level extension of the tunnel's busway opened immediately south of International District, the tunnel's southernmost station. This extension, the Metro Busway, extends approximately two miles south of Downtown Seattle in the largely industrial SODO (South of Downtown) neighborhood, following right-of-way formerly owned by the Union Pacific Railroad. The Metro Busway has four stations.

In the early 1990s, plans to extend the Metro Busway further south to the 1st Avenue South Bridge, a major traffic artery across the Duwamish Waterway, were under discussion. This proposed expansion was, however, never built.

The Metro Busway is owned by Metro Transit and is shared by buses belonging to Metro Transit, Sound Transit, Pierce Transit, which serves Pierce County, including Tacoma. Metro routes on the busway include 101, 106, 150, 176, 177, 178, 190, 194, and 196. Sound Transit routes on the Metro Busway include the 590 (Downtown Tacoma Express), 591 (Tacoma Dome/Lakewood), 592 (Lakewood Express), and 594 (Tacoma/Lakewood Express). The busway's single Pierce Transit route is 595 (Purdy Park & Ride).

From 1983, when the Metro Council voted to build the tunnel, to the present day, the Metro Tunnel has always been viewed as a potential conduit for light rail. Underscoring these plans, the Metro Council voted to lay light rail tracks the entire length of the tunnel for easy future conversion from buses to trains.

Light rail tracks, lain in 1989 and 1990, are clearly visible throughout the Metro Tunnel. When the region's voters approved a plan to build a light rail system, in 1996, it was expected that these tracks would be used by the proposed system. Unfortunately, it was discovered, in 1998, that the rails are useless.

While the tunnel was still under construction, Metro Transit was given a $5 million budget to install rails, but the actual work was found to cost an extra $1.7 million, according to an engineering estimate. Thus, as a budget cutting measure, Metro reduced the amount of insulation required to keep electric current from straying. In addition, the amount of cushioning for the rails was reduced. As a result, light rail trains will never use the Metro Tunnel's rails and the region's taxpayers will spend millions more to lay new tracks in place of the old ones when and if a light rail system is ever built.

Whether the tunnel will ever be converted to light rail is highly debatable. Sound Transit, which was created to develop the Sound Link light rail line in addition to regional commuter rail and bus lines, has been trouble plagued from its inception in 1996.

In 1993, while the regional transit ballot measure was in preparation, consultants estimated a $2 billion cost for the core segment of the light rail line. However, the cost of the project presented to voters, in 1996, was $350 million less than the original estimate. Five years of cost overruns, totaling $1 billion, followed the voters' approval of the 1996 ballot measure.

In 2001, the original 1993 estimate, adjusted for inflation, was shown to be within 15 percent of the current cost estimate for the core segment of the light rail line. Unfortunately, the current figure is $600 million more than the estimate presented to voters in 1996.

Due to Sound Transit's faulty estimates of the actual cost of their proposed 24 mile light rail line, which involved extensive and expensive tunneling, the U.S. House of Representatives Appropriations Committee has withheld $500 billion from the project. Recently, Sound Transit has been scaling back the length and scope of the initial planned light rail construction, but it remains to be seen if anything will ever be built.

Station By Station

South Spokane Street. The Metro Busway begins its northward course at South Spokane Street station. The station, located just north of South Spokane Street, consists of two curbside bus shelters on opposite sides of the busway, serving northbound and southbound buses, entering and leaving South Spokane Street. There is no fare control at South Spokane Street or any other Metro Busway station. Northbound passengers pay their fares upon entering the bus. Southbound passengers pay upon leaving the bus.

Surrounded by low-rise industrial buildings in the shadow of the elevated Spokane Street Viaduct, the station is ground level and located next to a little used Union Pacific freight track, running just west of the busway, built on right-of-way once shared by the Union Pacific and the Chicago, Milwaukee, St. Paul, & Pacific Railroad, which ran electric locomotives on this route until 1968. Just north of the station, another spur line branches off from Union Pacific track, crossing the busway at grade before turning north and running east alongside the busway.

The station's otherwise drab and unremarkable surroundings are enlivened by a series of colorful wall murals. Created by young artists, similar murals and other artwork extend for the length of the Metro Busway. Known as the SODO Urban Art Corridor, this beautification project is the result of Seattle's "one percent for the arts" law, which mandates that all city public works projects earmark one percent of their budgets for art work.

South Lander Street. This station features curbside bus shelters identical to those at South Spokane Street. However, the layout of the station is different from South Spokane Street, where the northbound and southbound bus shelters are located across from each other north of the busway's outlet to South Spokane Street. In contrast, South Lander Street station's southbound shelter is south of the busway's grade crossing at South Lander Street, while the northbound shelter is north of the crossing. As with all Metro Busway grade crossings, the South Lander crossing is regulated by a traffic light.

South Lander Street station will remain in service when and if the proposed Sound Link light rail system is built. South Lander Street is also the point where light rail trains are slated to begin their journey north on the right-of-way that is now the Metro Busway.

According to current plans, light rail trains will approach South Lander Street station running west along South Lander and turn north onto the Metro Busway at its grade crossing with South Lander. If what is now the Metro Busway is used for buses and light rail, the busway south of South Lander will remain open for the exclusive use of buses. However, if the busway north of South Lander is converted to exclusive light rail use, it is unclear what will happen to the busway south of South Lander.

Evidence that Sound Transit's light rail plans are not universally popular in Seattle is in plain view at South Lander Street. A large sign on building on the northeast corner of the station proclaims, "UN SOUND TRANSIT: PORTLAND'S LIGHT RAIL TRAINS HAVE KILLED 5 PEOPLE SINCE 1998.....ANY VOLUNTEERS?"

South Holgate Street. This station, in its configuration, is an identical twin of South Lander Street. The southbound shelter is south of the busway's grade crossing with South Holgate Street while the northbound shelter is north of the crossing. This station is slated for closure if the busway is converted to exclusive light rail use.

Royal Brougham Way. Located in the shadow of approach ramps to Interstate 90, Royal Brougham Way station is different from the preceding stations. Unlike South Lander and South Holgate, it is not located between the Union Pacific freight tracks, which abruptly end just north of South Holgate. There are also no buildings covered with art murals in sight of the station. Nevertheless, there is a small painting on the station's traffic signal control box.

Both the northbound and southbound shelters, identical to those of the other Metro Busway stations, are located south of the busway's grade crossing at Royal Brougham Way. East of the station is a vacant lot. West of the station is Metro Transit's Ryerson Base where numerous out-of-service buses are parked and plainly visible from the station. Beyond Ryerson Base is a terrific view of Safeco Field, home of the Mariners, Seattle's major league baseball franchise.

Northbound Pierce Transit 595 and Sound Transit's 590, 591, 592, and 594 turn right on Royal Brougham Way and enter Downtown Seattle via surface streets. Conversely, these same bus routes enter the busway from Royal Brougham Way when they are southbound. When the Metro Tunnel is closed, the busway's Metro Transit routes switch to northbound and southbound surface street routes via Royal Brougham Way.

Under the original light rail plan, this station would close when the Metro Busway is converted to exclusive light rail use. Under a 2001 proposal, this station would be temporarily used as the northern terminus for a shorter light rail line, which would extend south to the Sea-Tac International Airport area.

International District. (Opened 9/15/1990) North of Royal Brougham Way, the Metro Busway runs beneath an elevated ramp that connects South Dearborn Street with Interstate 90. Beneath the South Dearborn overpass, the busway is joined by eastbound and westbound branches of an elevated feeder busway linked to Interstate 90. Immediately north of this junction, northbound buses stop and shut off their diesel engines in a 12 lane staging area adjacent to the Facilities Tunnel Services, the Metro Tunnel's control center.

Next the poles on the roof of each bus are raised to connect with the overhead electric catenary wire that begins in the staging area and extends north for the next five stations. Conversely, southbound buses convert to diesel power in the staging area before proceeding onto the Metro Busway or the feeder busway to Interstate 90.

Once northbound buses have switched to electric power, they proceed into International District, which is considered to be the first Metro Tunnel station although it is located at ground level.

The entire Metro Tunnel is within the Downtown Seattle ride-free zone, where no fares are charged for bus rides. As a result, there is no fare control at International District nor any other Metro Tunnel station.

The station has four entrances, located at its northeast, southeast, northwest, and southwest corners. There is no mezzanine. Despite the station's ground level location, 5th Avenue South, immediately east of the station, is on higher ground than the busway. Thus pedestrians descend one floor level via staircase to reach the station's platforms.

International District has two platforms, northbound and southbound, on opposite sides of the busway. Much like Boston's Green Line light rail stations, Metro Tunnel platforms are low. Each platform is split into two bays, serving buses with different destinations. All other Metro Tunnel stations, except Convention Place, have the same layout of platforms and bays.

The northern half of the northbound platform, designated Bay A, serves buses with destinations to the north (Metro Transit 41, 71, 72, 73, 301, 306, 307, 312) and buses that originate from the south and terminate at Convention Place (Metro Transit 101, 106, 150, 176, 177, 178, 190, 194, and 196). The southern half of the northbound platform, designated Bay B, serves buses with destinations to the east via State Road 520 (Metro Transit 255, 256, 258, and 266) in addition to one route that originates in Bellevue and terminates at Convention Place (Sound Transit 550).

The southern half of the southbound platform, designated Bay C, and serves buses with destinations to the south via the Metro Busway (Metro Transit 101, 106, 150, 176, 177, 178, 190, and 194). The northern half of the southbound platform, designated Bay D, and serves buses with destinations to the east via Interstate 90 (Metro Transit 212, 225, and 229; and Sound Transit 550) and buses that originate from the east and terminate at International District (Metro Transit 255, 256, 258, and 266).

Reflecting the Asian heritage of the surrounding neighborhood, which includes Chinatown and the remnants of pre-World War II Japantown, the walls of the northbound side of the station are adorned with sculptures representing Japanese origami figures in various stages of completion.

International District is the Metro Tunnel's transfer point to the Waterfront Streetcar, the Sounder commuter rail line, and Amtrak. The station is also the point where the tunnel's useless light rail tracks abruptly begin.

West of the station is historic, old Union Station, which once served Union Pacific passenger trains. Union Station is now the headquarters of Sound Transit.

Pioneer Square. (Opened 9/15/1990) After International District, the busway enters twin parallel tunnels - one northbound, one southbound. Unlike typical subway tunnels used by trains, these tunnels are exceptionally well lit. The speed limit ranges from 10 to 30 mph.

Upon entering the tunnel, the busway's grade goes noticeably down then up before entering Pioneer Square station. Like the majority of the Metro Tunnel, this segment was built with cut-and-cover techniques.

Pioneer Square is the tunnel's first of three underground stations. Like International District, it has northbound and southbound platforms on opposite sides of the busway. The station has a reddish brown, beige, and gray color scheme. Two unique clocks, with faces made of bricks and a variety of construction materials and tools, adorn the north and south ends of the station.

Pioneer Square has north and south mezzanines and northeast and southeast entrances. Of the two entrances, the southeast, at 3rd Avenue and Yesler Way, is by far the most interesting. Topped with a clear glass paneled headhouse, the 3rd and Yesler entrance is connected to the south mezzanine by stairs that pass by beautiful tile murals reflecting Seattle's maritime heritage. The entrance's gates feature unique, stylized metal images of a crowd of people.

The south mezzanine has a surprising link to an earlier era of Seattle's mass transit history. Beside the mezzanine's east wall is an enormous 11 foot diameter cast-iron grooved wheel, which was once part of Seattle's now defunct cable car system.

The wheel, discovered in January 1990 while Yesler Way's pavement was being resurfaced in connection with the Metro Tunnel's construction, was found in a concrete vault. Cast in sections and bolted together in the vault, the wheel was free of rust and covered with dirt and a layer of dry lubricating oil. The wheel's new home, in Pioneer Square's south mezzanine, is only yards from where it was found.

The wheel once served as the terminal sheave for the Yesler Way cable car line, which operated from 1888 to 1940. Until the wheel stopped turning, on August 9, 1940, it reversed the direction of the 22, 900 foot cable that pulled Yesler Way's cable cars.

The vault where the wheel was found was built in 1920 when the cable car line's westbound track was moved three blocks north from South Jackson Street to Yesler Way. It is unknown if the wheel was new, in 1920, or if it was moved to Yesler Way from another cable car line.

Also in the south mezzanine is a reminder that the Metro Tunnel was built with great human sacrifice. A plaque on the mezzanine's west wall honors Alan M. Sandbo (1950-1988), who lost his life during the tunnel's construction.

University Street. (Opened 9/15/1990) North of Pioneer Square, the tunnel's grade climbs upward before the busway enters University Street station. The station has northbound and southbound platforms on opposite sides of the busway.

Like Pioneer Square, University Street has north and south mezzanines. The north mezzanine has two entrances while the south mezzanine has one entrance.

The most attractive entrance to the station is the northwest entrance at 2nd Avenue and University Street. Located at the ground floor of Benaroya Hall, one of Seattle's two classical music venues, the entrance is adjacent to the Garden of Remembrance, Seattle's World War II memorial. The entrance leads to the north mezzanine.

The station's color scheme is black, gray, reddish brown, red, and white. The mezzanines feature electric light art - Saccadascopoeia, by Bill Bell, in the north mezzanine, and Electric Lascaux, by Robert Teeple, in the south mezzanine.

Westlake. (Opened 9/15/1990) North of University Street, the busway turns east before entering Westlake station. Perhaps the most beautiful Metro Tunnel station, Westlake is distinguished by its muted black, beige, light brown, reddish brown, brownish tan, and green color scheme; its Italian marble fixtures; and its elegant overhead lighting.

The station features northbound and southbound platforms on opposite sides of the busway. In pleasant contrast to the station's muted color scheme are the bright and lively wall murals behind both platforms. At the east end of the station, above the busway, is an attractive clock.

One level above the platforms is a single, long mezzanine that extends nearly the entire length of the station. In addition to two street entrances, the mezzanine also has entrances from two department stores, The Bon March´┐Ż and Nordstrom's; Coldwater Creek, a women's apparel store; and two retail malls, Westlake Center and Pacific Place.

Westlake station is the Metro Tunnel's transfer point to the Seattle Monorail. The monorail's southern terminus, also known as Westlake station, is accessible through Westlake Center.

Convention Place. (Opened 9/15/1990) After Westlake, the northbound and southbound lanes of the busway run side by side in one single, wide tunnel, which climbs gently upward. Much of this section of tunnel was constructed through deep boring techniques in contrast to the more typical cut-and-cover construction of the Metro Tunnel.

Daylight appears at the end of the tunnel as the busway enters Convention Place, the Metro Tunnel's only open cut station. The tunnel's north terminus, Convention Place features the most complex layout of any Metro Tunnel station.

Northbound and eastbound buses (Metro Transit 41, 71, 72, 73, 255, 256, 258, 266, 301, 306, 307, and 312) stop at a platform on the south side of the station, which is designated Bay A/Bay B. Here the buses disconnect from the overhead electric catenary wires by lowering their poles. Before proceeding, the buses switch to diesel power.

Across the busway from the northbound platform are four island platforms, separated by narrow, southbound bus lanes. The first platform, designated Bay I, serves southbound buses originating from the north (Metro Transit 41, 71, 72, 73, 301, 306, 307, and 312). The next platform, Bay C, serves southbound routes originating from Convention Place with destinations south of Downtown Seattle (Metro Transit 101, 106, 150, 176, 177, 178, 190, 194, and 196).

Another platform, Bay D, follows. This platform serves southbound buses originating from the east (Metro Transit 255, 256, 258, and 266) in addition to southbound Sound Transit 550, which originates at Convention Place.

The final and northernmost platform is closed on its south side, but open on its north side, which serves buses that terminate at Convention Place (Metro Transit 101, 106, 150, 176, 177, 178, 190, 194, and 196; and Sound Transit 550). Passengers disembark from buses at this platform, but do not board.

At the east end of the island platforms is a crosswalk over the single bus lanes between the platforms. This crosswalk is the only point in the Metro Tunnel where pedestrians are allowed to cross transit right-of-way.

After leaving the northbound platform, Interstate 5 express buses proceed straight ahead, beneath a flying junction and out of the station onto Interstate 5's express lanes. Eastbound buses and non-express northbound buses keep to the right of the busway and exit from the Interstate 5-bound lanes onto the flying junction, which leads to an exit at Olive Way and Terry Avenue.

Southbound buses enter Convention Place through a portal at Olive Way and 9th Avenue. From there buses enter a large, open air staging area with 12 lanes, but do not switch to electric power until they stop at their designated boarding platforms.

Convention Place has no mezzanine. Pedestrians enter the station from street level by descending one of four staircases. The staircases lead to the northbound platform and all of the island platforms except for the northernmost.

The Metro Tunnel's unusable rails abruptly end at Convention Place. Although trains will never roll along these carelessly installed rails, it is still possible that light rail might eventually be routed through the tunnel. If light rail ever does come to the Metro Tunnel, Convention Place is the station that is likely to see the most change.

According to Sound Transit's original light rail plan, a new, deep bored tunnel was to branch off from the south side of the current tunnel between Westlake and what is now Convention Place. This proposed tunnel was intended to carry revenue collecting light rail trains under First Hill, Capitol Hill, Portage Bay, and the University District.

East of the proposed tunnel junction, the current tunnel would no longer carry revenue collecting transit vehicles. Instead, it would carry out-of-service trains to what is now Convention Place station, which would be closed to passengers and converted to a rail yard. The station was to be closed because it is built at the same level as Interstate 5, making a tunnel connection east to Capitol Hill difficult to construct without disrupting Interstate 5's traffic flow.

Under a 2001 proposal, Convention Place would remain open to the public and the Metro Tunnel would be jointly used by light rail and buses. In this scenario, the station would temporarily serve as the northern terminus for the light rail line until funding could be found for a northern leg of the route to the University District. Currently, a route north through the South Lake Union and Eastlake neighborhoods is being proposed as a less expensive alternative to the Capitol Hill tunnel.

Even if the Metro Tunnel is never used by light rail, Convention Place is likely to see big changes in the near future. Plans are in the works to cover the station's open cut and build high rises on the lid. This scheme has drawn protests from nearby Capitol Hill, which would lose cherished views of the Space Needle, to the northwest, if Convention Place sprouts high rises.

Photo Gallery


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Photo by: Paul Schlienz
Location: South Holgate Street

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Location: South Holgate Street

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Location: South Lander Street

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Location: South Lander Street

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Location: Pioneer Square

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Location: Pioneer Square

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Location: Pioneer Square

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Location: Royal Brougham Way

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Location: South Spokane Street

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Location: South Spokane Street

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Page Credits

By Paul Schlienz.









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