The pandemic resulting from the spread of SARS-CoV‑2, the novel coronavirus, has significantly reduced ridership on Puget Sound’s network of buses and trains, with many people working from home and with mass gatherings of people (like sporting events, concerts, and festivals) canceled for public health reasons.
Automobile traffic is down too, for the same reasons, which means rush hour in the Seattle-Tacoma-Everett area is not as long or as torturous as it used to be.
Lately, a few reporters and commentators fixated on the short term have questioned whether we still need the mass transit investments we’ve committed ourselves to given these conditions. And the answer is unequivocally yes.
Even if traffic volumes do not go back to what they once were due to greater adoption of a distributed model for work, our region will benefit tremendously from the deployment of a robust mass transit system with a rail spine.
Link light rail, Stride bus rapid transit, improved Sounder commuter rail, and expanded ST Express will give people freedom of mobility and liberate Puget Sounders from being forced to drive or even own a car.
That’s why it is so reassuring to hear that Sound Transit remains on track to deliver East Link — Line 2 of our region’s expanding light rail system — in 2023, as scheduled. ST and its contractors are now at about ninety percent of civil construction and the structural work on the Downtown Bellevue Tunnel, one of the most important segments of the line, is complete.
Last Wednesday, Sound Transit invited NPI and other media organizations to tour the Downtown Bellevue Tunnel with King County Council Chair Claudia Balducci and Bellevue Mayor Lynne Robinson. While wearing masks and observing physical distancing protocols, we were able to walk through the tunnel from portal to portal and see all the progress that has been made since it was first dug.
(Unlike with its Seattle-side tunnels, this tunnel was created using the sequential excavation method, not with a TBM, or tunnel boring machine.)
While the tunnel is structurally complete, track is still being laid inside and work still has to be done to install the tunnel’s safety systems.
It was very exciting to be able to walk where trains will, in just a few years, zoom underneath Bellevue’s financial district on their way to and from Line 2’s middlemost stations. From the outside, the tunnel looks like two separate tunnels, but it’s actually one subdivided tunnel with a wall in the middle.
After finishing the tunnel walkthrough, I spoke with Sound Transit’s Chad Frederick about the status of the project and what’s next for East Link after the tour was over. Click play below to listen to our conversation.
Note: This interview was recorded adjacent to an active construction site, so you’ll hear noises made by machines working in the background.
The construction of the tunnel, a project awarded to Atkinson Construction, went so well that excavation was completed five months ahead of schedule. Consequently, the springtime COVID-19 prompted pause in construction on Sound Transit’s projects isn’t going to have much of an effect on East Link at all.
“When East Link light rail service begins, eastbound trains will enter the tunnel north of the East Main station at 112th Avenue Southeast and Main Street and travel approximately one-third of a mile, under 110th Avenue Northeast and turn east near Northeast Sixth Street to emerge at the future Bellevue Downtown Station,” Sound Transit says. (From there, the alignment crosses Interstate 405, 116th Avenue NE, and NE 8th Street on an elevated segment.)
“Ten years from planning, through excavation to substantial completion, this tunnel represents Sound Transit’s commitment to a local plan that prioritized the best transit connection through downtown Bellevue,” said Claudia Balducci.
“Working together, the city council, community and Sound Transit developed an alignment that works not only for the Bellevue community, but also for the commuters who will come to work in Bellevue,” said Bellevue Mayor Lynne Robinson. “I’m excited to ride this beautiful route through the Eastside.”
“East Link’s opening in 2023 will be preceded in 2021 by Northgate Link and in 2022 by the Tacoma Link Hilltop [streetcar] extension. One year later, in 2024, we will extend Link to downtown Redmond, Lynnwood and Federal Way,” said Sound Transit CEO Peter Rogoff, Joni Earl’s successor. “These historic investments will finally give us the true mass transit network the Puget Sound region has sought for more than a half century. They will more than double our current reach and simultaneously help fuel our region’s economic recovery.”