Bus in the tunnel, 1990 (photo: Metro)

Today marks the twentieth anniversary of the Downtown Seattle Transit Tunnel. On September 15, 1990 at 5 am, Metro commenced bus service through the newly completed Downtown Seattle Transit Tunnel. The first routes to use the tunnel were the 71, 72, 73, 106 and 107. The 1.3-mile long tunnel with 5 unique stations was conceived in 1983 as an alternative to a 3rd Ave electric transit mall and cost $486 million. Construction began in 1987. 236 Breda dual-mode buses were purchased for the service. $1.5 million (1989) worth of public art was installed at stations.

In June of the same year: Trolleybuses returned to 3rd Ave after three years on 1st Ave during tunnel construction. The extension of the Waterfront Streetcar to the International District opened on June 23rd.

Not all routes served the tunnel from day one, it took almost two years for most of the routes that we know today to join the tunnel. In its first anniversary in 1991, the tunnel had 28,000 commuters a day and an estimated 6,200 additional people ride the buses during the day just to get around downtown. Ridership increased by 25% on Routes 71, 72 and 73, and by 22% on Route 150 between downtown and Auburn. The tunnel reduced travel times through downtown by more than half. A trip from Royal Brougham Way to Howell St used to take 20 minutes on the surface, now takes only 8 minutes through the tunnel. Later that year on December 8, the SODO busway opened, constructed for $4.5 million with federal funds from the I-90 project. On the February after, direct access ramps from the I-90 Express Lanes to the tunnel opened. These surface extensions to the tunnel allowed quicker and more reliable access from the south and east.

In September 2005, the tunnel closed for two years to prepare for light rail service as the original rails installed were not usable and with advances in light rail technology, namely low-floor cars. New signage, public address, and lighting systems were also installed.

According to Rochelle Ogershok with Metro, the tunnel now has 1,193 weekday bus trips, 725 Saturday bus trips, and 497 Sunday bus trips. Because of extended tunnel hours, there are now more riders and trips through the tunnel than before Link light rail opened. For most of its life, tunnel hours were 5 am to 7 pm on weekdays and 10 am to 6 pm on Saturday. After 2007, it was open weekdays only to 7 pm.

Metro doesn’t have any special event planned for this occasion but you can reminisce about the early days of the tunnel right here.

37 Replies to “Seattle’s Transit Tunnel Turns Twenty”

  1. Hmm? The tunnel had 28,000 daily commuters in 1991, which turns out to be 56,000 daily boardings. But now, there’s only 1,193 weekday bus trips? Am I missing something here? And Kevin Desmond’s Op-Ed a month or so back said this:

    Buses alone have 50,000 tunnel boardings each weekday.

    1. I doubt that the 28,000 commuters is referring to round trips. I take that statement to mean that there were 28,000 boardings or alightings in the tunnel for trips that started or ended outside the tunnel, plus another 6,000 trips that took place entirely within the tunnel.

    2. Sherwin —

      I’m guessing 1,193 = buses, and you’re comparing against “boardings” (individuals getting on or off).

    3. That is equivalent to the Red-Line State Street Subway (Chicago’s Busiest)
      That is quite IMPRESSIVE.

      50,000 a day on busses, that neglects the 10,000? boardings a day on light rail

      10,000 more and we’ll be level with both Chicago’s subways combined!

      when the U-district opens we might even rival the entire downtown El system (above and below) (if i’m not mistaken, which I may be, the projection is for something like 70,000 a day out of the U-district line?)

    1. Seriously, with all the smart people on here, it shouldn’t be too hard to get an edit or at least a preview button!

      This was supposed to be in reply Sherwin Lee.

    1. lol. After reading this, I pictured the tunnel walking into Red Robin and ordering a burger. lol so awesome. Would it have to be during ride free times?

  2. so roughly how much would it cost to build the same thing today under todays codes and standards and construction costs?

    (please dont just take the $486 million and account for inflation)

  3. Praise the lord the powers-that-be had the foresight to build the tunnel when they did. Even ten years later the cost might have been too prohibitive and there would be NO Central Link today. The[already built]tunnel, retrofit notwithstanding, was key to the whole project’s success.

    1. I know it’s a sore subject, but too bad Seattle didn’t have the same foresight decades ago when there was federal funding for a transit system that went to Atlanta instead.

      1. I agree with you wholeheartedly. But better late than never. I believe that without the transit tunnel, it would have been never.

      2. One of my new favorite sayings is, “The best time to plant a tree was 20 years ago. The second best time is today.” :)

      3. Well, heavy rail is big and ugly. Light rail seems to have adequate capacity for Seattle, and it’s smaller and sleeker. Plus, we’re seriously concentrating development around rail stations. That might not have happened in the 70s or 50s, when people sited shopping centers and the like without regard to where the transit lines were. So in some ways maybe we’re getting a better system now. But I can’t have back all those hours I waited for hourly and half-hourly buses, or sat in traffic, or sat on a local bus with too many stops.

      4. “heavy rail is ugly”.. that’s heavy rail as in heavy capacity. Link cars are more massive than amtrak cars because they have to be able to withstand a side hit from an automobile accident.

        DC Metro is heavy rail. The LINK system costs were equivalent to a heavy rail system, but we got a “light rail” as in light capacity system.

        That said, the current and projected ridership doesn’t justify a heavy capacity system. (yet).

  4. By now it seems as if the tunnel has always been there. Yet it didn’t exist for the first two years that I attended the UW.

    1. The boards under the wheels are the giveaway: The haven’t been put up yet. The coach in the picture is probably full of visitors or officials, and the driver is an instuctor or a supervisor. Metro did a considerable amount of testing, even before there was a Tunnel.

      At the time, there was some debate as to whether we’d need guidance on the steering to keep from hitting the walls. One other joint rail and bus subway in Essen, Germany, ran buses on platforms between streetcar tracks- but they needed a lever with a roller attached to the front axle.

      We took a bunch of MAN “artics” down to Seattle International Raceway for several days to run a full-scale model of the Tunnel and its stations, laid out with orange cones.

      We used a pickup truck with drag-racing signals for the signalling. The back axles on the buses had to be “fixed” to make them corner like a rear-wheel-drive bus- the 2000-series had drive wheels on center axle, and the trailer “steered”, giving a different steering geometry from present buses.

      As it turned out, to a Tunnel driver, it never even felt cramped. If it weren’t for the special work on the trolley overhead, a bus probably could have gone through there at forty no sweat.

      Thanks for remembering, Oran. Somebody needs to.

      Mark Dublin

    2. The photo was before construction was completed: permanent lighting had not been installed yet, Rails were not installed yet – etc.

      I question the date – It would have had to have been early 1990 if not late 1989.

      5001 was one of three pre- manufacturing prototypes which were used for extensive testing – I remember many days of driving those out of service putting as many miles on them as one could in 8 hours. Fortunately Snoqualmie summit is in King County

  5. I remember doing some sort of organized fun run or walk from one end of the tunnel to the other as a kid. I believe it was before revenue bus service began.

    1. There was — a benefit walk through the whole tunnel, sponsored by the police as far as I recall, with proceeds used to purchase teddy bears for abused children. My daughter and I did the walk, lots of people, lots of fun.
      I remember that special walk every time I ride through the tunnel.

  6. And if i remember my history right, Today also marks the 20th Anniversary of the Seattle Express, Which started on the same day that the tunnel opened. The Seattle Express routes were origonally operated by Metro under contract to Pierce Transit. I may still have a newsclip about the opening on tape somewhere i’ll have to check.

    1. Thank God for Seattle Express. I once tried to ride the 174 the whole way and it was the worst mistake ever. (this was of course before it was discontinued.)

  7. Let’s not forget that a big expense of the tunnel was the dual-mode Breda buses to avoid diesel exhaust from being expelled into the downtown environment. I believe that the air-handling system of the tunnel is perfectly adequate to handle the exhaust (heaven knows I’ve seen plenty of buses with their engines running).

    We’ve now junked those Breda buses (the mode-switch at Intl Dist and Convention place often went awry) and are using diesel hybrids.

    One other memory I had of the opening: When arriving at the mezzanine, Metro had signs indicating which platform you could move to: A, B, C, or D!!! (no indication of which buses stopped at which platform). I was just just waiting for Monte Hall to offer me a trade….

    After a few days, they had made up some temporary banners to indicate that A was Northbound, B was East on SR520, C was Southbound, and D was East on I-90. I was pretty disappointed that a $480 million project would overlook this “human interface” issue.

  8. “The 1.3-mile long tunnel with 5 unique stations was conceived in 1983 as an alternative to a 3rd Ave electric transit mall”

    And the reason for that was… (drum roll)… suburbanites wanted to keep their one-seat rides into downtown; they didn’t want to transfer at the edges of downtown.

  9. If you’re drinking with your transit geek buddies, ask each to draw on a napkin the route shape for the DSTT. Whoever is closest to the correct shape wins a free drink. (Be sure to carry around a blueprint of the exact tunnel route to settle arguments.)

  10. I was going to take the $486 million and account for inflation, but your invitation to more complicated math was just too much to handle.

  11. I did that too – it may have been a loop that started and finished at Convention Place. About twice a year – during the Jingle Bell Run and Torchlight Run – I think of how awesome it would be to have another one in the tunnel, and if they can shut down 520 for a marathon in 2008, surely they can shut down the tunnel. Oh, wait, that marathon was a disaster.

  12. OK, I definitely clicked “Reply to this comment” for some comments above for this one and the one below.

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