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Originally published Friday, September 23, 2005 at 12:00 AM

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Whats, whys of $82.7 million tunnel project

Q: Why do they need to close the tunnel for up to two years for construction? Aren't there rails in the tunnel already? A: Rails were installed...

Q: Why do they need to close the tunnel for up to two years for construction? Aren't there rails in the tunnel already?

A: Rails were installed in the tunnel when it was built in the late 1980s. But Sound Transit says it can't use them because they aren't adequately insulated. Stray electricity from the trains could escape into the earth and corrode nearby metal pipes.

In addition to installing new rails, Sound Transit plans to lower the roadbed in the stations by six inches so passengers can walk or wheel themselves directly from the platform onto rail cars and onto new, low-floor buses without climbing stairs or using wheelchair lifts. That should speed loading.

Sound Transit also plans to install overhead electrical wires to power the trains, replace the overhead sprinklers on the tunnel's walls (the current sprinklers don't leave enough clearance for trains), install a signal system to keep buses and trains separated, and improve the emergency-ventilation system.

Q: How much will the retrofit of the tunnel cost, and who will pay?

A: The contract for the downtown-tunnel retrofit and Pine Street stub tunnel is for $82.7 million. While most of it is paid by Sound Transit, Metro is paying about $8.1 million. Sound Transit has budgeted another $8.3 million for contingencies.

Q: What will the work mean for bus commuters?

A: As many as 140 additional buses each hour will be taken out of the tunnel and put on downtown streets, primarily Second, Third and Fourth avenues. In all, 21 Metro routes that have used the tunnel will now be on the streets, and more than 70 Metro and Sound Transit routes have changes in their downtown stops. No routes are being eliminated, no route numbers are changing, and downtown bus service on First and Fifth avenues remains much the same.

Q: What's a stub tunnel?

A: It's a dead-end tunnel being built so the trains will have a place to turn around. A 730-foot stub tunnel will be built under Pine Street between Seventh and Boren avenues. Construction is scheduled to be finished in 2006.

Q: What are some of the biggest tunnel routes affected?

A: Route 41 from Lake City via the Northgate Park & Ride carries the most riders — 5,500 each weekday. That's followed by Sound Transit Route 550 from Bellevue, with 3,900 riders a day. Route 101 from Renton has 3,400 riders. The tunnel routes with the fewest riders are the 256 from Juanita and Kirkland and the 225 from Overlake and the Eastgate Park & Ride, each with only 200 riders a day.

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Q: What tunnel stop is used by the most people?

A: Westlake, which has 6,433 people getting on buses and 6,329 getting off each day.

Q: I used to be able to walk to the stop right outside my office on Third Avenue to catch my bus. Now I'm told I will need to walk to a different stop. Why?

A: Buses will operate on what Metro calls "skip stops." Buses on Third Avenue won't stop at every stop, as they did while the tunnel was open. Instead they will have alternating stop patterns, as buses on Second and Fourth avenues do. That way, Metro said, it can speed up traffic through downtown Seattle.

Q: Will it take longer to get through downtown with the tunnel closed?

A: Yes, but planners can only estimate how much longer. Grace Crunican, head of the city's Department of Transportation, said the change is expected to add one minute to the car commute between Stewart and Jackson streets and two minutes to the bus trip. During peak travel times, buses on Second and Fourth avenues will need an extra three to five minutes to travel through the downtown area, according to Metro planners.

Q: I take my bike on the bus but can't unload it in the tunnel. Will this change with the buses on the street?

A: You cannot load or unload bikes in the ride-free area downtown. That won't change. So, cyclists have to load/unload at the first or last stop for their particular route. If they are not sure, they can check with the driver.

Q: I hear cars are being routed off Third Avenue during peak hours. What does that mean?

A: Cars on Third Avenue in downtown Seattle will be allowed to travel only one block, or two if turning onto a one-way street, during rush hour before being routed off the street to make way for buses. The restrictions on Third Avenue will be in place from 6 a.m. to 9 a.m. and from 3 p.m. to 7 p.m. According to the city, 1,650 cars now drive on Third Avenue each day during the morning and afternoon peaks.

Q: What if I don't do this?

A: You could face a $101 traffic ticket. Tickets will be issued next week to drivers who violate the new law.

Q: Will the free-ride zone still be free?

A: Yes. And it's been expanded to include the Convention Center bus-tunnel station, which is beyond the free-ride boundaries. There will be new stops near the Convention Center on Ninth Avenue between Olive Way and Stewart Street that will serve as substitute stops for the tunnel.

Q: So as a tunnel rider, I'm going to get wet?

A: Probably, but Metro upgraded or installed new shelters in more than 60 locations downtown this summer. Many have lighting.

Q: So can I still go into the Westlake tunnel station to get to stores?

A: No. It's closed.

Q: How will traffic coming out of parking garages be affected?

A: Cars will still have access to and from all parking garages and lots on Third Avenue, but during peak hours cars leaving garages on Third Avenue will be allowed to stay on the street only until the next right turn.

Q: When will light rail begin operating in the tunnel?

A: The tunnel is expected to reopen no later than September 2007 for buses, and the trains will begin running in 2009 when the light-rail line opens.

Q: As a bus commuter, do I get anything for the inconvenience of leaving the tunnel?

A: Yes, the Downtown Seattle Association has launched a shop, dine and ride program where bus riders can get discounts on food and merchandise they can redeem with a bus pass or transfer. For a list of merchants, go to www.shopdineride.org/shop.html.

— Compiled by Seattle Times staff

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