The best news: It will take you less time to ride from the University of Washington to Broadway when light rail’s U-Link opens in early 2016 than it will to watch this hastily edited video of CHS’s walk Friday afternoon from Montlake to the future Capitol Hill Station with the winners of a Sound Transit contest.
Four winners of a contest designed to buck up a local restaurant’s prospects during construction made the 3.1 mile trek under Capitol Hill from the construction site at UW’s Husky Stadium to the edge of the downtown transit tunnel beneath the Paramount. They were escorted by a gaggle of Sound Transit representatives and a small pack of media for the Friday afternoon hike.
More than 1,000 entries were received in the Annapurna Cafe contest, officials say. One winner declined to make the journey. Commence your “Hey, I would have taken your place!” complaints.
The three-mile walk took the hikers hours to complete. Starting in the line’s northbound twin tunnel, the lucky winners began their hikes ascending the steep slope up the northside of the Hill from Montlake starting under the waters of the Montlake Cut. Despite passing beneath the Cut and then up Capitol Hill, the incline is incredibly gradual and the grade never climbed beyond 4.5%, Joe Gildner, a project manager with SoundTransit, told CHS during the walk.
Riders will soon travel the same route in under 10 minutes. The tunnel boring on the $1.9 billion project was completed in spring 2012 and was achieved by a team of two 21-foot-tall boring machines that completed their mission with almost no hiccups along the way barring an occasional burst of muck at the surface and some strange vibrations around the Hill and in Montlake.
Along the way, the surprises are mostly subtle in the gray, repetitive patterns of the cement tunnel pieces that have been fit together along the twin passages connecting the future stations. At one point in the northbound tunnel you can find a steady drip from a seeping, ancient aquifer deep below Montlake. The Sound Transit contracting crews found the water to be incredibly clear — and delicious — but you won’t find any bottling process in the works. Almost every inch of the tunnels will be devoted to the rails, the trains and their overhead power sources. Sound Transit’s engineering team also says there are no exits mid-route anywhere along the tunnels. Instead, the only exits are at the stations. If for any reason you ever need to walk out, you’ll be hiking to Montlake, Broadway or Pine. The twin tunnel structure includes 21 hand-dug cross passages to connect the tubes. The design should allow anybody who needs to the ability to move back and forth between the tunnels should one passage be blocked. We also got a kick out of the abbreviation used on the cross passage doors to designate Capitol Hill Station — CHS.
Given the controlled entry, there’s not much life in the tunnels. Some of the water seeps have a vegetative brownish muck but it’s unlikely you’ll even find the vermin — the chubby mice of Boston’s T, the fat rats of the NYC subway — sometimes typical of public transit systems. We’re told a few opossum have wandered into the tunnels, however. If they do check it out once trains start running in 2016, you probably won’t see them anyway. Top speeds will be around 55 MPH. You’ll be in a hurry.
You probably also won’t smell any of the occasional methane bubbles that has made working in the tunnels — especially near the Montlake Cut — occasionally a stinky proposition. We’re assuming thousands of years old swamp gas is not pleasant. Fortunately, there’s been a good deal of engineering put into keeping a constant air flow pumping through the tunnels. Emergency power in the event of a major outage will also keep things running for 90 minutes.
Not only will you (probably :) ) not smell Montlake swamp gas, you’ll probably also have mobile phone service. A Sound Transit representative on the hike said the agency is working on a new deal with a provider that specializes in providing service in tunnel environments. That provider sells its services to carriers and should, if everything works on the technical end of things, be able to provide service throughout Sound Transit’s light rail system including the nine miles of tunnel planned as part of the Northgate route.
The twin tunnels between downtown and Montlake pass beneath dozens of apartment buildings, about 250 homes and several municipal structures at depths between 15 feet (beneath the Montlake cut) and 300 feet (beneath Volunteer Park) below the surface. The deepest digging between Broadway and downtown bottoms out at a still impressive 150 feet below the pavement.
While the boring is complete, work at the UW and Capitol Hill stations is still in motion. Capitol Hill Station is expected to eventually host 14,000 riders a day at its platform beneath giant pink jets transformed into public art. Meanwhile, transit oriented development on Sound Transit’s land surrounding the Broadway site is slated to begin as the station opens in early 2016. Today, inside the tunnels, rails are still being placed in a laborious process requiring a seemingly endless cycle of poured concrete.
The tunnel portions from downtown to Capitol Hill includes some of the most technically challenging work of the project. Navigating a continuous curve that at one point brought the process within 21 feet of I-5 at the surface, the tunnel boring machine operated by a team of around 17 people operating five days a week, 24 hours per day for weeks at a time, traveled from Broadway to the edge of downtown’s transit tunnel. Friday, the curves provided some of the more photogenic — and noticeably steep — elements of the tour. As a rider, you’ll likely quickly become accustomed to the downtown thrill as you whiz through.