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A tour of the recently completed Bellevue Sound Transit tunnel

After 10 years of bitter debate and three years of construction, Bellevue’s light rail tunnel is finished, at least the tunnel portion.

I was able to walk the roughly half-mile tunnel on Wednesday. It’s a cut and cover concrete box on either end with an excavate-as-you-go bore in the middle.

I entered from the south portal at Main Street right under a newly minted “Downtown Bellevue Tunnel” etched into the outside, along with the Sound Transit logo and the year 2023, when service is set to begin. There are two sides, separated by concrete: westbound and eastbound. I walked up the wrong way, going up from the eventual Main Street Station to the Bellevue Station, which is next to City Hall.

Chad Frederick, who’s in charge of this project for Sound Transit, says he’s happy with how the tunnel turned out.

“We didn’t have a lot of unknown things happen, like have happened elsewhere in our region,” Frederick said. “So we may have benefited from a lot of luck on this one, but there was a lot of planning that went into it, and we put a lot of mitigation into making sure we didn’t have problems with the ground as we excavated this tunnel.”

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Frederick said the decision to go with this type of excavation and not a tunnel boring machine, like the SR 99 tunnel in Seattle, really made a difference.

“It allows you to — as you excavate the tunnel — to make adjustments to your design,” he said. “So we could add things like concrete, and we could add things like secondary support for the tunnel.”

Crews are currently installing track inside the tunnel, and they’re about halfway finished. Frederick said they’ve got about a year of work left to complete all of the primary work. After the track is down, it’s time for the fire suppression systems to be added, along with electrical systems. After that, there is months of train testing before the opening in 2023.

King County Council Chair and Sound Transit board member Claudia Balducci was on the tour with me. She said there were times over the years that this day never seemed possible.

“This tunnel is an embodiment of how we can make government work for people by building bridges across our differences, fighting for the things that will best serve our community, and never, ever giving up,” Balducci said.

I asked councilmember Balducci if she’s concerned that our change in commuting patterns and behavior because of the pandemic will make light rail unnecessary when this line opens in three years.

“People love to ride the train,” Balducci said. “If we do our job and make sure it’s safe and make sure that people understand that it’s safe, I do believe that people will continue to ride in the numbers that we thought, maybe a little bit slower, but I think we will get there ultimately.”

Balducci is still bearish on the East Link light rail, despite the current reduction in mass transit usage because of the pandemic.

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And despite the massive loss in projected tax revenue Sound Transit has endured this year and will continue to face in this pandemic recession, this project is still considered safe because it’s under contract and under construction.

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