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Friday, January 11, 2002 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Montlake Cut tunnel new light-rail option

Seattle Times staff reporter

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Sound Transit still doesn't have the money to build a light-rail line from downtown Seattle to the University District. But if and when it does, a route through Montlake may be cheaper and attract more riders than any other option for getting across the Lake Washington Ship Canal, a preliminary agency analysis suggests.

The Montlake option was one of 17 presented to the Sound Transit board by staff members yesterday. It would involve a tunnel under the Montlake Cut and the University of Washington campus to Northeast 45th Street, with stations near the campus' southeast and northwest corners.

Some board members were enthusiastic.

"I think it's a very good idea," said King County Councilwoman Cynthia Sullivan, D-Seattle, whose district includes the university.

"I love it," said board member Dave Enslow, a Sumner city councilman. "We could serve the (university's) health-sciences center, Husky Stadium, maybe get some tie-in with (Highway) 520. It makes a lot of sense."

A University District-downtown link with a tunnel under Capitol Hill and Portage Bay was part of the 21-mile Sound Transit light-rail package voters approved in 1996. Big cost overruns, due in part to the higher-than-expected cost of tunneling under Portage Bay, caused the agency to mothball that plan last year.

The board later adopted a scaled-back, 14-mile line from downtown to Tukwila but vowed to extend the line to Northgate someday and ordered staff to continue looking into financing and routes.

Yesterday, project manager Ron Endlich presented the board with the first cut. The board is expected to eliminate some alternatives, perhaps as soon as Jan. 24, and make a final route choice in mid-2003 after environmental studies are completed.

Endlich called the Montlake option "a very attractive alternative from a cost-savings point of view." While he didn't have dollar figures, he said better soils would permit a shallower tunnel under the Montlake Cut than was required under Portage Bay, which in turn would allow stations to the north to be built closer to the surface, reducing costs.

Other options for crossing the ship canal include:

• A tunnel under the ship canal between the Interstate 5 and University bridges.

• A bridge just west of the I-5 bridge about 70 feet above the water.

• A bridge on the east side of the I-5 bridge about 130 feet above the water — about the same elevation as the existing bridge's lower, express-lane deck. From the new bridge, rails would either lead into a tunnel to the university or continue north above I-5 to Northgate, bypassing the University District.

But Endlich said none of those options appeared to have as much potential to save the agency money as the Montlake route. The 70-foot high bridge, which would require a drawspan to allow ships to pass, would cost more than the abandoned Portage Bay route.

What's more, he said, all are projected to attract fewer riders than the old route — especially the I-5 alternative, which would drop passengers a half-mile from the university campus. "The farther away from campus you are, the lower the expected ridership," he said.

The Montlake route, in contrast, would attract about as many riders as the abandoned route, Endlich said.

But he also said vibrations from trains in the shallow tunnel under Montlake and the campus could interfere with sensitive university research. And several board members said they didn't relish the prospect of working out an agreement with university officials.

Some, alluding to previous negotiations with the university, said they would like to evaluate more routes that avoid the campus altogether.

Tacoma Deputy Mayor Kevin Phelps suggested running light rail under Roosevelt Way Northeast. Seattle City Councilman Richard McIver said the City Council was interested in a Brooklyn Avenue Northeast route.

Enslow, who first proposed consideration of the I-5 route, said he was motivated by frustration with the university's posture in earlier negotiations. UW officials didn't seem to appreciate the valuable role light rail could play in solving campus transportation problems, he said.

Not so, said university spokesman Bob Roseth. In the earlier talks with Sound Transit, "we had different points of view," he said. The university gets $650 million in federal research money each year and needs to protect that investment, he added.

South of the ship canal, the previously approved Sound Transit plan calls for a tunnel from downtown with stations on First Hill and Capitol Hill. Two options that Endlich presented would eliminate the First Hill station, perhaps replacing it with a second station on Capitol Hill.

Two more alternatives would bypass Capitol Hill altogether, instead running trains through South Lake Union, either along Eastlake Avenue East or Boren Avenue North.

Most of the options would save money, Endlich said, but all would attract fewer riders than the original plan. The Boren Avenue route, in particular, "appears to be less attractive," he said.

Sound Transit expects to piece together a financing plan for the downtown-university link as it evaluates possible routes. One estimate puts the cost at $1.5 billion; Sound Transit said in November that, after building the 14-mile line south, it would have just $368 million left to go north.

Eric Pryne can be reached at 206- 464-2231 or epryne@seattletimes.com.

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