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Sunday, July 13, 2003 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Shaft shines light on light-rail plan

Seattle Times staff reporter

Sound Transit at a glance


• A key federal audit last week concluded that Sound Transit is qualified to build the 14-mile light-rail line from Westlake Center to Tukwila, and that its $2.44 billion cost estimate and July 2009 opening date are both credible.

• The Federal Transit Administration (FTA) Friday announced a $500 million "Full Funding Grant Agreement" for the project.

• A U.S. House committee chaired by Rep. Ernest Istook, R-Okla., allotted zero dollars to the project instead of approving the $75 million installment that the Bush administration requested in the 2004 budget. Instead, Istook's proposal allows $183 million to be spread by the FTA among several projects, including Seattle's, in 2004.

• Congress has 60 days to review the $500 million grant. If Congress decides not to challenge the grant, the review period will end Sept. 9 and Sound Transit could begin construction work on light rail.

While officials in Washington, D.C., haggle over giving Sound Transit the half-billion dollars it has long sought to begin laying track for the region's light-rail system, the agency's workers back on the left coast already are mining the mystery soils of Beacon Hill.

A test shaft being drilled deep into the hill will help scout out the right depth for a one-mile tunnel that will be key to opening the system's 14-mile rail line from Seattle's Westlake Center south to Tukwila.

The shaft also will help planners better understand the soils of Beacon Hill, which could help prevent problems likely to lead to cost overruns.

And that's one reason why on Friday the Federal Transit Administration (FTA) promised to give Sound Transit its approval for funding to start the massive transit project about 60 days from now. Federal auditors, who blistered Sound Transit two years ago, say that now the agency is doing its homework and is worthy of the investment of federal money.

The FTA agreement will instruct Congress to make six annual payments to Sound Transit, which, along with the $91 million in federal money already paid out, amounts to a $500 million federal contribution toward the $2.44 billion Westlake-to-Tukwila segment.

"This has been an amazing week for Sound Transit," board chairman and King County Executive Ron Sims said late Friday after receiving the news from the FTA.

The agreement will be reviewed over the next 60 days by Congress, where some opposition exists. One possible critic is Rep. Ernest Istook, R-Okla., who last week included no money for Sound Transit in his markup of the 2004 transportation budget in his House subcommittee.

But U.S. Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., and Sound Transit believe the FTA deal obligates Congress to spend the money, beginning with $75 million in 2004. Even if summer ends with little or no money forthcoming the first year, Sound Transit officials say they have collected enough cash from taxes and bond sales to cover several months of work.

Bottom line: The odds are very high that Seattle residents will see not just a hole in Beacon Hill but a full-fledged construction project sometime this fall.

Test drilling under way

On his way to the Beacon Hill construction site, Don Billen, a manager on Sound Transit's light-rail team, could hardly contain his delight about the test drilling, which began a few weeks ago.

"After years of planning and debate the region has gone through, it's really exciting to see earth be moved," he said.

To create the 18-foot-diameter hole next to Beacon Avenue South — the site is marked by a tall crane and surrounded by a blue noise-dampening wall — the agency is spending $2.4 million.

But federal auditors think it's a great investment because would-be tunnel builders can study the sediments before they submit their bids on the project. Small doors inside the shaft will give engineers a clear view of the earth, and mined dirt is being held in a warehouse for further study.

But critics have portrayed the shaft, utility relocations in Sodo and various agency announcements as a political scheme by Sound Transit to lock in its project by spending money prematurely and deluding the public that construction is under way.

"I can't prove it, but it seems consistent," says John Niles, a Seattle rapid-transit proponent and transportation researcher. "That's what I would do if I were in their shoes."

Beacon Hill is a parfait of clays, sands and water — and like most of the glacial deposits on Seattle's hills, difficult to tame while boring a tunnel. So far, crews have located a half-dozen distinct layers, said Mike Lehnen, resident engineer with tunnel designers Hatch Mott Macdonald.

As a crane lowers workers in a steel basket into the tube, the air becomes cool and moist. That moisture creates a challenge for the tunnel builders. When the diggers reached the 95-foot level on July 3, they had to stop, lay a temporary concrete floor and pump water out of the soggy layer of sand. On Friday, they broke open the floor and resumed digging.

Sound Transit expects to find a stable clay foundation at 150 feet, confirming that a huge, $220 million tunnel tube would be buildable at 165 feet. But the track level could vary somewhat if watery soils are found, Billen said.

Risk of cost overruns

Federal auditors have warned that the tunnel has the potential to cause cost overruns, as history has shown in tunnels elsewhere. Their report, released Monday, said that although the hole struck groundwater, no serious problems had been reported.

Tunnel ignorance was the flaw that precipitated Sound Transit's near-collapse in late 2000, when the true costs for a tougher tunnel in the North End turned out to be $300 million higher than estimated.

Federal inspectors recommended suspending federal aid amid more than $1 billion in total project overruns, while the Deloitte & Touche auditing firm criticized the agency for having inadequate contingency funds and insufficient soil data.

Deloitte & Touche went on to accuse Sound Transit of "development of estimates to match a budget." The agency had to cut its initial line from 21 miles to 14 and reorganize its management.

It hired a new executive director, Joni Earl, who recently was granted a contract extension. Sound Transit board members frequently laud her unflappable demeanor and strong work ethic and praise several reforms she has implemented that they say have improved project management.

Senior managers are now required to disclose which projects are at high, medium or low risk for cost overruns. The board members — 17 elected local government officials and state Transportation Secretary Doug MacDonald — became more attentive to details, in particular the finance committee chaired by Tacoma City Councilman Kevin Phelps.

Sims said he and other officials realized that if the attempt to build light rail stopped, "We would get the blame for the failure."

They speak of the recovery in almost biblical terms.

Sims, a preacher's son from Spokane, says he's running a "changed agency" that should no longer be assailed for sins of the past. Last summer, as the feds freed up funding for pre-construction work, Seattle Mayor Greg Nickels said three times that Sound Transit is back from the "road to perdition."

But the agency still lacks a funding plan or a route choice yet for the hardest part of light-rail vision: a proposed second line that tunnels north beyond the Lake Washington Ship Canal.

State Rep. Ed Murray, D-Seattle, chairman of the House Transportation Committee, wants light rail but remains frustrated that the agency has not yet answered questions about the north-line alignment or where the money will come from

Murray represents densely populated Capitol Hill and the University District, neither of which is reached by the first 14 miles of the light-rail plan.

"If you don't have a way clearly to go north, I wonder why we are going south?" he said last month. "I look forward to hearing an answer soon."

Leading critics acknowledge that Sound Transit is more competently managed under Earl, but they say the agency hasn't truly changed.

"They just manipulate and finesse and evade everything," said former journalist Emory Bundy, who faults the agency for making unrealistic promises to voters who passed the regional transit plan seven years ago. "Sound Transit's rail projects can't stand honest public scrutiny. The only way to pass them in 1996, and to keep them sort of viable, is to misrepresent."

Planning for the unexpected

Sound Transit's construction manager, Joe Gildner, worked a decade ago for Tri-Met in Portland on its light-rail tunnel through the West Hills, in hard volcanic basalt. Unexpectedly, the rock face disintegrated into gravel, causing a one-year delay and an $81 million overrun.

To save the project, Gildner and contractors devised a plan to coat the flaking walls with quick-dry grout as their machine inched ahead.

A similar "grouting" strategy is planned for Beacon Hill. Pre-fabricated concrete sections will be inserted to form a massive tube and an underground station shaped like a pair of binoculars. The tunnel, linking Sodo with Rainier Valley, enters the hill near Interstate 5 and empties into an elevated station at South McClellan Street.

The design is nearly complete, and the new audit notes that the $220 million price includes a healthy 20 percent contingency to cover any overruns.

The shaft provides one more layer of confidence in the light-rail venture — the biggest megaproject in Seattle since the construction of Interstate 5 in the 1960s.

Mike Lindblom: 206-515-5631 or mlindblom@seattletimes.com

Copyright © 2003 The Seattle Times Company

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