Seattle Downtown Transit Tunnel
Photo by Nathan Pachal

[UPDATE: Link fixed.]

Historic Seattle is presenting a DSTT history tour May 22 at 9 am:

Bus tunnel team leads May 22 tour

Leaders of the design team for the Metro bus tunnel will explain how each station was developed during a Historic Seattle program from 9 a.m. to noon May 22.

Phil Jacobson, Mark Spitzer and Jack Mackie are presenters at the event, which begins at the Klondike Gold Rush Historic Park auditorium, 168 S. Jackson St., Seattle.

The cost is $25 for the public, $15 for Historic Seattle members and $10 for students.

The tunnel opened in 1989, and represented the largest collaboration of engineers, architects and artists in Seattle’s history, according to Historic Seattle.

Register here.

25 Replies to “DSTT History Tour”

    1. Fixed – thanks for pointing it out, and thanks Joshua for the fixed link!

  1. An interesting structure to be sure and one that just befuddles me for the lack of good planning that went into it.
    As the name implies, it was a transit tunnel, not a bus tunnel. They had the foresight to embed rails into the pavement, and managed to screw that up big time by not insulating them properly. That meant chipping away all the grout around them, and redoing the whole mess at great expense.
    The second failure was not figuring out how rails would continue on past Convention Station. That prompted a major dig under Pine street to put in the stub tunnel heading under I-5, also at great extra expense and a two year loss in the structure.
    The rails at CPS aim at the reversible lanes, which were supposed to be for high capacity transit to the north. Kaiser Engineers even had a plan to extend the rails across the ship canal bridge on the lower deck, then drop down into the University District, but that got scrapped shortly after the tunnel opened.

    1. The rails they installed were fine. They assumed they would use the existing dual overhead wire, which wouldn’t have needed insulated rails.

      We would have spent most of that retrofit money anyway, because even a low floor light rail vehicle needed a higher platform. They lowered the roadbed of the stations 8″ – it wasn’t just insulating that happened.

      1. Good Points.
        So that makes major failure No. 3 – Dig the floor deeper.
        Platforms at the wrong height for low floor LRV’s that existed at the time they were building it.

      2. From Wikipedia:
        ” A similar, but somewhat older technique is one that has been developed by MAN and was in 1990, the first 100% low floor tram. These trams are found in ten German cities (such as Bremen and Munich) and in the Swedish city Norrköping. In many other German cities there are trams with low floor between the outer bogies and single axle bogies under the centre section”

        Granted, it wasn’t until the mid 90’s that it became common, but certainly not unheard of in engineering circles.

      3. Yes, in Europe there were some unique examples of low floor vehicles, but do you really think that was what Metro engineers were considering in the mid-80’s when the tunnel was being designed? The handful of light rail systems operating in North America at the time were all using high-floor cars, mostly based on the Siemens-Duewag designs. Portland was the first system in North America to get low-floor vehicles, and that wasn’t until 1997. Besides, I’m sure that bus operation was the main factor considered when picking the platform height, given that rail was merely an afterthought.

      4. Its likely when the tunnel was designed they were planning to use high floor LRVs with steps up and platform lifts in the station.

      5. Hm I wonder if the fact that this was designed before ADA was passed made them not build the platform to be at the same level as LRVs.

    2. Don’t forget about the South African granite:

      Metro, which managed King County’s sewage treatment and public transportation, would have to pay for, but not use, a half million dollars worth of granite that it had purchased for a new bus tunnel through downtown Seattle.

      I wonder where that granite is today? Another interesting piece of history would be to know when “bus tunnel” got the more PC name “transit tunnel” in the main stream media.

    3. Mike, I’m pretty sure the rails were put in place to appease certain groups of people who otherwise would not have supported the tunnel project. The rails were like a promise for the future, never really considered for use in the near or long term. Besides a lack of funding, there was no way planners could have anticipated Sound Transit would build the system that they did.

      1. Well, as long as we’re on a history thread, I remember attending an early meeting of the newly formed JRPC in the early 90’s, talking about light rail alternatives through downtown Seattle to the U-Dist.
        When the subject of going to Capital Hill first came up, with the associated changes in the tunnel needed to make that happen, I’m pretty sure it was Councilman Paul Barden that remarked. ‘You mean we built the thing (DSTT) in the wrong place?’ or something like that. He was flabbergasted to say the least.
        It hadn’t been open for very long!

    4. The important thing is, we got the transit tunnel. For a decade and a half we could get through downtown without having to stop-and-go due the traffic and stoplights, even before Link. The rails were slapped in at the last minute to appease the pro-rail crowd, basically as a symbolic promise that real rail might be built there someday (i.e., it wouldn’t be categorically opposed).

      Connecting to the express lanes at Convention Place was a paramount value, and it was also assumed that convention-goers would use the station more than they ended up doing. The predominent light rail plans at the time went on the express lanes or Eastlake-ish because they thought voters wouldn’t approve the cost of a Capitol Hill tunnel. Others (like me) said, “It has to be within walking distance of the largest pedestrian concentration (Broadway), and it’s not worth building anything less.” But it never went beyond that to the exact route it would take if it went to Capitol Hill. In any case, the bus tunnel was a concrete amenity; light rail was a theoretical possibility decades into the future. So I think they would have built Convention Place station even if they knew a future train would bypass it. Maybe they would have made it less grandiose in that case, but it would still have been a station next to the express lanes.

      1. Your read on history is correct. It just drives me nuts sometimes the way decisions are based more on the voting cycle around here than the life cycle of the project.
        DBT and 520 are good examples of some crappy planning for the sake of getting to yes with elect-eds and voters.

  2. Will it include a tour of the “Permanent” factory that (Ansaldo-)Breda promised to build in Issaquah in order to win the order for the tunnel buses over Neoplan?

    It should at least include a visit to a Breda Duo-Bus, MEHVA has one.

  3. Would much like to register- info appreciated if link won’t work. Suggest that special invitation and admission price be extended to Metro operations people. And include ATU Local 587 in the planning and presentation.

    If only to recall that a joint advisory group including both Metro management and ATU Local 587 drivers, supervisors, mechanics, and maintenance people helped the engineers design the Tunnel.

    Mark Dublin

  4. I wish it weren’t at 9AM on a Sunday morning! I don’t think I can get my lazy self up that early after a Saturday night…

  5. One of my greatest Seattle memories is doing the Tunnel Run — through the tunnel, just after it opened and before there was traffic.

    It was so cool to be in a pack of people running through each station — herds of people and no motors or noise or smells.

  6. Thanks for getting the link fixed. Art session is worth attending. The art project was both an artistic and a monumental engineering achievement, but mainly proof of a valuable approach. Previously, “public art” had been small separate pieces added after the facility was already complete- with an effect like a postage stamp on a 747.

    Our project proved that if artists are brought in to work with engineers and architects from the beginning, a big public project can be made beautiful for a very reasonable price. Tunnel could have looked like a parking garage for 1% less money.

    Re: some other comments above: After decades of fruitless regional arguing, the Municipality of Metropolitan Seattle put a five-station subway through Downtown Seattle in three years, one of which was spent relocating utilities.

    Boring started with two machines performing an aerobatic Imelmann turn underground before heading up Third, clearing the underside of the BN tunnel by five feet,through soil that had to be “grouted” for months before it quit being water.

    And proceed through a mile of Seattle’s underground history without felling any architecture. And dealing with the underground river Spring Street was named after, without drowning any crewmen or losing a day of work. And many, many similar things on a daily basis.

    Under administrative and political leadership occupied throughout with a political fight for the Agency’s existence- which the first LINK train out of Westlake proved twenty years late that Metro didn’t deserve to lose.

    So a lot of mistakes are now merely roadbed which trains and freely-steered buses run safely and efficiently every day. My chief gripe: in 20 years, operations have never been coordinated as designed. Considering achievement to date-for the transitworkers involved, a piece of cake.

    Mark Dublin

  7. I saw a quote somewhere that said:

    “The tunnel is an art gallery that we run buses through.”

    1. F. Edward Elliott, of Parsons, Brinckerhoff, Quade & Douglas, was the Manager of Architecture on the Downtown Seattle Transit Project. He died shortly after the Tunnel was completed.

      On one of the stone benches on the northbound platform at Westlake, there’s an engraved quilt to his memory. Many of us who worked with him contributed little designs and drawings to be worked into the pattern. Unfortunately, twenty years of wear have worn away much of the pattern.

      I always thought the quilt itself was smaller than Ed deserved. All the human areas of the project are his real monument. Respect for him alone, in addition to art owed to the public, should get the waterfall at CPS turned back on, and all the station clocks restarted.

      Thanks, Oran.

      Mark Dubin

  8. So if the tunnel wasn’t built, what would have likely happened downtown when Link was being planned? Would a subway likely have been built now or would they have gone with a surface alignment?

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