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Originally published Thursday, September 26, 2013 at 7:27 PM

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Light-rail start to U District, Capitol Hill may come early

Sound Transit says the light-rail extension from downtown to Capitol Hill and the University District could open several months early.

Seattle Times transportation reporter

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Construction is going smoothly enough that Sound Transit thinks it can bring light-rail service to Capitol Hill and the University of Washington by early 2016, instead of its official goal of Sept. 24, 2016.

An earlier start would be good news for thousands of students, staff and medical-center personnel who crowd into buses between the UW and the Westlake Station transit hub.

Transit executives are optimistic because the construction schedule has six months of “float” — excess schedule days to absorb any problems — and the heavy tunnel and station work is 75 percent done, including risky bores under the Montlake Cut, Capitol Hill and Interstate 5.

And the $1.95 billion project is trending toward having its entire $105 million reserve left over, said Sound Transit CEO Joni Earl.

“We’ve asked our contractors for cost proposals on what it might take to move the start date up,” she told the transit agency’s governing board Thursday. In other words, accelerate the work, possibly spending some of the reserve money.

Earl said she will report again in October or November on whether the agency can deliver an early-2016 launch.

“Fabulous, fabulous”

Opening the line early “would be fabulous, fabulous,” said Chairwoman Pierce County Executive Pat McCarthy, the board’s chairwoman.

Josh Kavanagh, UW transportation director, said students would benefit greatly if rail were operating well before the 2016-17 academic year begins.

“Having people be able to practice the means of commuting they will use during the school year would be wonderful,” he said.

In one sense, it wouldn’t be early at all.

When voters passed the original Sound Move plan of 1996, creating new sales and car-tab taxes, transit officials pledged to reach the university by 2006. But planners underestimated the costs by half, which led to higher than expected bids and then an overhaul of the budget and route, using better estimates.

The agency regained enough voter support to win another sales-tax increase in 2008 to add three suburban lines — to Lynnwood, the Eastside and South King County — by the early 2020s.

With the University Link in place, plus a new Angle Lake Station in SeaTac, the agency’s service plan says total use would grow from an expected average 34,700 daily boardings in 2016 to 82,300 by 2018.

Thursday afternoon, King County Metro Transit riders crowded the downtown tunnel platform at Westlake Station, entering a 71 bus to the University District through both doors. Kavanagh said rail would be a relief.

“When I come downtown [by bus] for an evening meeting, I’ve never had a seat,” he said.

An early grand opening isn’t a sure thing. The U-Link team would need to test the trains to meet federal requirements, and satisfy the Seattle Fire Department’s rigorous fire-suppression and safety codes for tunnels. Kinks in train-control software could eat days or weeks.

Sound Transit’s first line to Tukwila used all its float time and opened two weeks late, on July 19, 2009.

Earl said her agency needs to coordinate with Metro Transit and the UW. The university has upcoming projects that include expanding the Burke-Gilman Trail and rebuilding the Rainier Vista promenade.

No apparent conflicts

Sound Transit spokesman Bruce Gray said there don’t appear to be any conflicts that would hinder light-rail startup.

Ahmad Fazel, light-rail director for Sound Transit, said he wrote four weeks ago to contractors — not just the station builders, but those delivering electronic systems, too — asking whether they could accelerate.

Fazel said he is striving to gain even more time than the six months available.

Meanwhile, the agency said it plans to release land around the future Capitol Hill Station for redevelopment into apartments, retail, a plaza and community buildings in March 2016, but that, too, might occur earlier.

Mike Lindblom: 206-515-5631 or mlindblom@seattletimes.com. On Twitter @mikelindblom

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