Tracks in the Downtown Bellevue Tunnel
A section of the mostly complete Downtown Bellevue Tunnel, which will carry East Link/Line 2 light rail trains under the city's financial district (Photo: Andrew Villeneuve/NPI)

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.”

About the author

Andrew Villeneuve is the founder and executive director of the Northwest Progressive Institute, as well as the founder of NPI's sibling, the Northwest Progressive Foundation. He has worked to advance progressive causes for over two decades as a strategist, speaker, author, and organizer. Andrew is also a cybersecurity expert, a veteran facilitator, a delegate to the Washington State Democratic Central Committee, and a member of the Climate Reality Leadership Corps.

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