A giant, blue, noise-reducing wall protected Beacon Hill residents from the sounds of 24-hour construction as a cylindrical yellow basket lowered a handful of workers onto the bottom of the 165-foot chasm at the southeast corner of Beacon Avenue South and South Lander Street. Within a few years, the wall will come down, four high-speed elevators will replace the shaky construction basket, and the muddy ground will be transformed into the platform of the Central Link light rail's Beacon Hill Station.
Despite some minor weather-related setbacks, construction of the initial segment of Sound Transit's $2.4 billion Central Link light rail, which will stretch 14 miles from Westlake in downtown Seattle to Tukwila, is more than one-third complete. The line is on schedule to open in July 2009. The 13 stations being built include Pioneer Square, the International District, SODO, Mount Baker, Columbia City and Rainier Beach.
Construction on the SeaTac Airport extension, expected to start running in December 2009, will begin later this year. Sound Transit is also working on plans to extend the line north to Husky Stadium by 2016, Central Link director Ahmad Fazel said on Jan. 30 during Sound Transit's first complete media tour of the entire Central Link alignment.
Fazel estimated that the light rail would transport 45,000 riders a day by 2020.
Currently, a 360-ton tunnel-boring machine dubbed the Emerald Mole is chewing its way through Beacon Hill, burrowing the first of twin, mile-long shafts beginning under I-5 east of Airport Way. Construction on that segment is under way seven days a week.
The railway will go underground for the Beacon Hill stretch, partially due to concerns centering on the intersection of I-90 and Rainier Avenue South. Project engineers considered continuing the railway north through the area, but decided that street-level construction would disrupt traffic and adversely affect the many businesses near the intersection.
Farther south, where the length of the rail stretching from Columbia City to Rainier Beach will run at ground level, Martin Luther King Jr. Way is being rebuilt from sidewalk to sidewalk.
Utility replacement is currently under way as new water, storm, sewer and gas lines are installed along the four-and-a-half-mile stretch. Engineers also decided to bury unsightly overhead electrical, cable and telephone lines underground to improve the street's aesthetic value. Eventually, people in the area will see only trees and light poles.
SETBACKS AND PROGRESS
This year's particularly wet winter has created the occasional snag as workers dig. One morning in late January, a new sewage line was being installed when a bypass pump was overwhelmed by heavy rain. Sewage spilled into the basements of eight South End homes. The residents were offered hotel rooms as Sound Transit rushed in to clean up the mess, according to Sound Transit spokesman Geoff Patrick.
Workers are 90 percent done with the utility digging, and will soon start in on the track and station. The street, which is currently asphalt, will be replaced with 12-inch concrete that is expected to hold up for 50 years. When complete, two lines of light rail track will be sandwiched between two lanes each of northbound and southbound traffic. Twenty-one new traffic signals will be integrated with the light rail to encourage driver and pedestrian safety, said Jeff Munnoch, a community outreach specialist for Sound Transit.
Allowing for possible traffic delays along Martin Luther King Jr. Way, Central Link travel time from Westlake to the airport will be about 36 minutes, according to Sound Transit estimates.
As contractors work through their own challenges, area businesses are coping with the effects of the massive construction project.
The Rainier Valley Community Development Fund (RVCDF), established to help local businesses through the valley's transitional period, identified 274 businesses along Martin Luther King Jr. Way when construction began. Of these, 230 remain.
To help these businesses stay afloat, the RVCDF approved $7.5 million in mitigation funds by the end of 2005. To receive the funds, businesses demonstrated declines in gross revenue that were directly caused by construction. Businesses that stayed were eligible for $30,000 payments, while those that relocated could receive $50,000. "Exceptional hardships" entitled businesses to an additional $20,000, said CDF executive director Jaime Garcia.
Though there were no racial requirements for receiving funds, and the dollars were distributed fairly evenly among ethnic groups, Garcia said. Of the 274 businesses, 128 were Asian-owned, 42 were owned by blacks, 70 by whites, five by Latinos and five by Middle-Easterners. Nine were multi-ethnic and 15 were unidentified. Early concerns that white business owners might receive more funds than people of other ethnicities were disproved, Garcia said.
Garcia recognized that mitigation funds couldn't replace all income lost due to construction and said the RVCDF also helped businesses work their way into new markets.
"They should change how they do business," Garcia said, mentioning Internet marketing and trade fairs as possible options.
While the CDF has so far focused on helping existing businesses with financial assistance and marketing workshops, it will soon turn its attention toward attracting new businesses to the area.
The CDF will also work with Sound Transit to "draw attention to Rainier Valley businesses during and after construction" with the "The World at Your Doorstep" campaign, said Ron Lewis, deputy director of the light rail.
The "major marketing effort" will be similar to Sound Transit's "Shop, Dine and Ride" program launched in 2005 to promote downtown businesses as the transit tunnel closed for a retrofit, Lewis said.
JOBS AND MONEY
The CDF has also helped South End residents get construction jobs by training 18 local workers and directly placing 39 others, Garcia said.
Some of these construction workers have joined the Central Link project, which employs mostly local laborers. Only one of the nine contractors involved in the project is Seattle-based, however, and specially trained workers have come from as far as Japan, Austria and France, Patrick said.
Construction bids came in at 6 percent below estimates and were fixed. This has allowed the Central Link project to stay $200 million under budget, despite rising material and fuel costs. Some contractors have asked for contract adjustments to compensate for rising fuel prices, but Sound Transit denied the requests, Fazel said.
The CDF's annual meeting for area businesses will take place Thursday, Feb. 9, at 5:30 p.m. at the Royal Esquire Club, located at 5016 Rainier Ave. S. Call 722-5280 for more information and to RSVP.
For more information about the Central Link, visit www.soundtransit.org/projects/svc/link.
Columbia City writer Denise Miller may be contacted through firstname.lastname@example.org.