If you want transportation construction, look no further than Seattle. Right now, work is either planned or underway on major new at-grade highways, bridges, floating bridges (the world’s largest, in fact) and tunnels. Oh yes, plenty of tunnels. 

And it isn’t only the Alaskan Way Viaduct tunnel replacement in Seattle that has people thinking about the dirt below ground, but plenty of Sound Transit tunneling work too. As the Emerald City works to boost its mass transit quota and improve light rail connections throughout the city, the state commissioned the first of two tunnel-boring machines for use digging twin tunnels from the University of Washington west toward downtown. 

Known as the University Link project, the $1.9 billion project features an underground rail from the school to Westlake Center via Capitol Hill. The first TBM aims southbound toward Capital Hill. A second TBM will launch from the university area in June, building the parallel northbound tunnel. A third machine will start in June at Capitol Hill, heading toward Westlake Center. Once it finishes one tunnel, it will be extracted and turned around to dig the parallel tunnel back to Capitol Hill. That first boring machine could take off yet this week with high hopes of having the tunnels ready to go in 2016.

The entire “link” adds about three miles of rail and aims to free up a tightly gridlocked section of the city in a mass transit-friendly area (think university students on budgets and with limited parking).

When done, the new project will send riders from Husky Stadium—the new transit station will be across the street from the football stadium—to downtown in six minutes. Of course, Sound Transit officials are quick to point out buses can run up to 30 minutes behind schedule due to congestions that can place vehicle speeds between 15 and 35 miles per hour on the tightly clogged Interstate 5.

As tunnel mishaps occur regularly, Sound Transit sure hopes that their TBMs, each weighing over one million pounds, stretching more than 300 feet long and with a 21-foot diameter cutting head guided by satellite technology, is up for the task.

Expect the TBMs to keep ticking around the clock for over a year. All the while, crews will haul away the dirt and build up the sides of the tunnels. While the Sound Transit projects don’t often get the press the back-and-forth debate over the Viaduct tunnel brings, at least their cutting heads are already spewing dirt.