While 2012 comes to a close and prompts a time of reflection on the year that was, Tacoma must also look ahead at the year that will be 2013. There are plenty of big events and changes in the works. Here is a collection of the Top 10 issues to watch as Tacoma flips the calendar to the New Year.
Effects of city budget cuts
Tacoma’s projected shortfall for the 2013-14 budget prompted deep cuts in city services and municipal spending as city leaders sought ways to cut $63 million in spending to make the budget balanced and sustainable. Those cuts take effect in January and will take several months to start showing their trickledown ramifications, from potentially slower police response times, longer lines at municipal counters and higher taxes and fees. The city’s mid-year budget process should provide for some interesting discussions about the role of government and the validity of revenue and cost projections done during the start of the budgeting process this summer.
SR 167 funding could actually be in the cards
Plans to run State Route 167 to shipping operations on the Tideflats have been in the works for decades. Land purchases, designs, studies and route selections have trickled in ever since, but the massive price tag of more than $1.5 billion has kept it from being fully funded until now. The project has reached the point both in design and in political support to have a chance at state and federal dollars in the coming legislative session as a “road of regional significance.” Not only would the road streamline freight traffic from the shipping terminals to warehouses and distribution centers in East Pierce and South King counties, but it would aid the effort to clear routes through the area, namely Interstate 5 and State Route 16, that have cars battling for space with cargo-carrying tractor trailers. For a project first conceptualized in the early 1950s, construction took another 30 years to even start. Now three decades later, the road might finally get completed but it will likely include higher state gas tax, tolls and federal grants to get shovels turning again. “Washington’s transportation system forms the backbone of our economy,” Gov. Christine Gregoire said of her transportation package during her final days in office. “Legislative action in 2013 is essential for maintaining and boosting Washington’s economic competitiveness. This project represents a critical missing link in the state highway network. Completion of the existing SR 167 will move freight faster and more economically as well as relieve congestion on local roads and other highways through new travel options.” Her transportation plan failed, however, to address a revenue package to actually fund the work or for any other transportation project for that matter. The package proposes $1 billion wholesale excise tax on gasoline and diesel fuel to pay for K-12 student transportation services.
Link expansion routes could connect Tacoma to the region
Transit officials are reviewing a roster of a half dozen routes for Link expansions around the city in hopes of drafting a shorter list for further study in 2013. Some of the proposed routes are little more than people movers from one side of a neighborhood to another, while others could provide significant economic potential for the region. Options range from running rail from the North End to downtown, along Hilltop’s emerging “Medical Mile,” through the East Side or along Pacific Highway to Fife and the Puyallup Tribe’s commercial center. The idea now is to gauge potential rider information as well as ponder what economic impacts the various routes would have. The current 1.6-mile Tacoma Link light rail line currently serves six stations from the Theater District to the Tacoma Dome Station. Trains run every 12 minutes during the day and served nearly a million riders last year. Voters in 2008 approved an expansion of Tacoma Link as part of the Sound Transit 2 ballot measure. The year-long “alternatives analysis” effort to look at routes to expand with either an extension of the existing line through the Stadium District or lay separate tracks elsewhere in the city looks at ridership, partnership funding potential, impacts on low-income and minority communities and economic potentials. It is those factors that drive the financial train. A route, for example, might have higher ridership than others, but fail to drive new private development because the tracks are laid in commercial areas that are already built out, or that have higher-income residents that make it score low with the low-income ranking. A rail line from Portland Avenue on the East Side to the current station at Tacoma Dome could bring huge benefits not only by providing transportation to the residents of the low-income Salishan development but also solve parking issues facing Tacoma Dome and will aid the long-standing lack of hotel beds that have caused the convention center to under-book larger events. The lack of parking for the Dome and convention center could be solved through a partnership with the Puyallup Tribe’s Emerald Queen Casino, which sits along the route. The hotel rooms would come with the development of the tribe’s hotel complex that has been in the works for years. The route would also be one step closer to linking Tacoma to Federal Way’s Sounder hub that could provide a flow of travelers from SeaTac International Airport directly to the City of Destiny, finally linking Tacoma to its namesake airport.
Shipping operations at Port of Tacoma are the “economic engine” of the region in ways many people do not realize. International and regional trade through the Tideflats support more than 43,000 jobs in Pierce County and more than 113,000 jobs in Washington, with annual wages of $637 million flowing into local wallets. Washington is the most trade-dependent state in the nation, and Tacoma is the most trade-dependent city in the state. Increased international trade brought by the economic recovery as well as the growing traffic through the Grand Alliance operations means all economic eyes will be looking at the waterfront for prosperity following years of stagnation. The port’s 10-year master plan sets a series of goals that include: doubling container volumes to 3 million containers a year, doubling its dry bulk volumes to 12 million metric tons a year, increasing auto imports by 20 percent to 200,000 units a year and increase port-related jobs by 4,700 and associated jobs by 2,000.
All eyes on the Elks
Work is underway to transform the long-dormant Tacoma Elks Lodge in downtown Tacoma into a landmark pub and entertainment spot by this time next year. While an official grand opening date is still in flux, the McMenamins Elks hotel and pub in the historic building will turn heads at each milestone of its transformation. The landmark pub operators spent $1.2 million on the former lodge as well as added a nearby site for another $980,000 as the project’s scope grows. The Elks’ annex building is now set to be hotel rooms, while the main building will be entertainment venues and 150 more rooms in the 1916 lodge site that has undergone a series of changes since the purchase was announced three years ago. The property will include 45 guestrooms with private baths; space for live music, events, weddings and meetings; a ballroom that will feature a tiny indoor city with “cabins,” skylights, gardens, terraces and more; three restaurants; a McMenamins brewery; and a rooftop garden (vegetables, herbs and flowers) that will provide the restaurants with fresh, seasonal ingredients.
Morgan Bridge reopens
The renovations of the Murray Morgan Bridge that links downtown’s South 11th Street to the Tideflats are now done and the bridge is set to have a “soft opening” by the end of the year. The $57 million renovation project might take some fine tuning into early 2013 but should be all done well in time for the bridge’s 100th anniversary celebration set for February. Washington State Department of Transportation closed the bridge in 2007 because of needed repairs. The state transferred ownership to the City of Tacoma in 2009, and restoration efforts began.
Now that personal possession of small amounts of marijuana for recreational use is legal in the state and the federal government has made statements that it will not enforce federal laws on pot smoking by small-time users, the state Liquor Control Board is tasked with creating a state-run, regulated system to grow and sell marijuana that is both liberal in its guidelines and controlled so tax revenues do not leak out of the system. Left unknown is not only how the process will work, but also how cities will zone and control such operations. The board has a year to figure all this out, so this on-going story is not disappearing from headlines anytime soon.
Ticket to ride?
The failure of the Pierce Transit sales tax hike outlined by Proposition 1 by less than a single percentage in November translates into deep cuts for bus and transit services heading into 2013. The particular cuts, which will mean the transit system will be about the size it was 30 years ago, will be worked out in the coming months. The system will be about half of what it was as the area entered into the Great Recession. But what is known is that special event buses for the State Fair in Puyallup and Freedom Fair will be gone, as will all weekend routes and most late-night buses. What is also in the works are talks between suburban cities about finding ways to fund commuter-only services from their cities to job centers in the region rather than funding a full slate of bus routes during work days that are not generally used by residents of the area because they are at work. Other cities could see significantly reduced bus routes and decide to opt out of the transit system entirely. That would mark the second time in as many years cities have left the taxing boundaries that define the transit system, which would further mean cuts as tax revenue shrinks.
Tourism in T-town
City officials have handed over the marketing and booking efforts for the Greater Tacoma Convention and Trade Center to the Tacoma Regional Convention + Visitor Bureau in a contract that is meant to not only trim city spending but also boost conventions at the 8-year-old venue that has long been suffering from a lack of events. The convention center’s main ballroom was only used 56 percent of the time, with 206 days in use, while its exhibition hall was used even less, at 44 percent or 159 days, this year. The industry benchmark is between 50 and 70 percent. The lack of events at the convention center has led to a need for $1.2 million from the General Fund this year to shore up the department’s bottom line and a projected $895,000 next year, according to city documents. Shifting the marketing efforts away from city staff to the Tacoma Regional Convention + Visitor Bureau will enable the convention center to have three regional sales people, one national sales person and one sales representative in Washington, D.C., which is seen as a key feeder location for landing conventions for national associations. The change, which is more in line with trade standards, will allow for flexibility in trade shows and familiarization tours of the facility as well. Rob Hanson pointed out during his presentation that the same marketing efforts would have cost the city about $700,000 a year if they were done in-house by city workers.
Water, water everywhere
Pierce County’s newly formed Flood Control District will be busy in 2013 as it not only sets out to create the district operations from the ground up, but also sets out on its efforts to raise taxes and fund water-retention projects around the county with specific attentions on Puyallup River waters. The task at hand is to figure out how to best manage water flows in the 1,000-square-mile basin that sends melting snow from Mount Rainier to the south and the rainwater from as far north as Auburn into the Carbon, White and Puyallup rivers onto its final destination of Commencement Bay and Puget Sound without flooding areas that are becoming more dense with residential and commercial developments. The center of the study is the final seven miles of the Puyallup River since it is the collection point for much of that water and runs perpendicular to Interstate 5. The main roadway through the area, therefore, could face a shutdown if a massive flood hit the area and mitigation projects were not in place. Projects on just the last stretch of the Puyallup River will likely cost about $300 million. The newly formed Flood Control District is only set to collect 10 cents per $1,000 of property value, or $21.50 for a $215,000 house. That only brings in about $8 million a year.