Tuesday, June 27, 2017 This Week's Paper

Where Should Link Go Next

// Questions, frustrations remain as Link routing decision looms

The decision on what route Tacoma Link will take is about to arrive at the end of the line, with Sound Transit entering its latest round of public meetings on the proposals. The selection of a “preferred option” and an alternative route for the expanded rail line has gotten a bit easier with the roster of six routes officially cut down to three, and a vote set for this spring.

The next stop is the selection of a recommended route by the Tacoma City Council and the stakeholder groups that will then fold into the decision-making by the Sound Transit Board of Commissioners.

The options, studied for the past two years, once included 24 routes or variations. The routes on the short list are: 

  • B1, a route along Stadium Way and Division Street to 6th Avenue, ending at Union Avenue. The 2.9-mile route along 6th Avenue is projected to cost $163 million. 

  • C1, would expand the current line from the Dome District to 48th and Portland Avenue. The 2.3-mile route is projected to cost $119 million. 

  • E1, would run along Stadium and Division before running to 19th Street and Martin Luther King Jr. Way. Projected cost of the 2.3-mile route is $133 million.

Routes to Fife, the Tacoma Mall and a downtown loop are still under review, but the top three options are ranking highest in the research so far in terms of economic development potential, ridership, grant funding options and impacts to disadvantaged communities. They are /undergoing more detailed study.

While the process chugs along, many transit watchers have unanswered questions.

City Council member David Boe is among them. He talks about “fluffy” numbers on projected ridership on the Sixth Avenue route, for example, since that route is already serviced by Pierce Transit buses every 15 minutes. He wishes the city had a long-range transportation master plan that would drive some the discussion rather than having a looming decision in the works without a grand citywide plan.

“The pressure should have been on us years ago,” he said, adding that he is looking for ways to see if the routing decision can be delayed until a citywide look can be developed. The $150 million, after all, is still $50 million short and filling that gap will take time.

“Basically my heartburn is that this process is ending up pitting one neighborhood against another on which one wins ‘the prize,’ without having a much larger comprehensive master transportation plan in place, so it is guiding the investment rather than reacting to it,” he said. “So I’m looking into options presently on how we can defer the alignment decision until we can get our house in order on at least a preliminary plan.”

The current 1.6-mile light rail line serves six stations from the Theater District to the Tacoma Dome Station, with trains running every 12 minutes during the day. The 10-year-old service cost $77 million to construct. It served a million riders last year and marks its 10th anniversary this summer. Voters in 2008 approved an expansion of Tacoma Link as part of the Sound Transit 2 ballot measure. Routes have been talked about ever since, with formal study starting in 2010. A third Sound Transit package is under discussion, and will likely include another expansion of Tacoma’s Link system. The details of that package, however, are not part of the current discussion because they are still under development, although it could face voters as soon as 2016. The immediate task at hand is to conduct high-capacity transit studies in all the corridors to inform an update of the Long Range Plan for the region, which would ultimately help inform the scope of another ballot measure.

Council member Ryan Mello also wishes the city had developed a master plan for transportation years ago. But it didn’t, and here another major transportation decision is in the works without much discussion of city-wide impact. That said, he is leaning toward the routes that run track up Stadium, either to 6th Avenue or Martin Luther King Jr. Way. The Portland Avenue route latter seems to open future options for more expansion tying neighborhoods to downtown.

“I believe the promise to voters in ST2 (the base funding for this LINK expansion phase) was to expand the system within Tacoma and connect more neighborhoods to the current downtown spine,” Mello said. “Certainly a 10-20 year Transportation Master Plan will help considerably with decisions like this in the future, so as to not see this as the end of the line, but the start of the expansion. I am nervous that citizens will see this as the only expansion of light rail in Tacoma. What I want citizens to know is that I am serious about advocating and fighting for light rail and bus service to serve all neighborhoods, not just some. We have a lot of work to do going forward to ensure our transportation options work for our growing community.”

Mayor Marilyn Strickland agrees that everyone needs to look longer term than the next Link expansion.

“It is our job to consider the long-term implications of this decision,” she said. “This goes far beyond getting the Link to one specific neighborhood or serving one set of interests. We must build a spine with the potential to expand citywide so that many neighborhoods and business districts can be served by Link in the future. … We must envision what is possible because this is about the long game.”

The city, however, has yet to formally start a citywide transportation planning process that is fairly standard for urbanized areas.

While the greater downtown area, the site of all or part of the Sixth Avenue and MLK routes, have been the focus of much of the city’s growth discussions, transit watchers supporting the Portland Avenue route hope the time has come for its neighborhood to get some city love. Much of the area around the Portland Avenue route, after all, is already zoned for mixed use, and it is the only proposed route that would be under budget once standard cost overruns are factored into the final cost.

“The Eastside has been discussing the potential for growth connected to this project at just about all of our community meeting for the last year,” said Tony Miller, president of the First Creek Neighbors group. “We on the Eastside in general and First Creek have reviewed the posted six criteria and think this a no-brainer… At the logistical level, an important question going forward will be how much value is placed on potential future development, and how much on existing ridership potential.”

The Salishan community is growing. More than 100 homes in the area have sold in the last year, he said. Routing the Link expansion along Portland would assist the lower-income residents get to jobs downtown as well as spur development and redevelopment of parcels without impacting wetlands and parks that could bog down the other routes.

“It is a tinderbox of economic development that is ready to explode,” he said. “We are ready for it. We are hungry for it.”

Another backer of a Link route to Portland Avenue is the Puyallup Tribe, which has a seat at the stakeholders group for the process.

“Anything that comes this way would be great,” said Chad Wright, CEO of the Tribe’s business arm, Marine View Ventures. “If you look at all the factors being considered, it’s the East Tacoma route that makes the most sense.”

A Portland Avenue route, or especially the route that would run tracks on Pacific Avenue in Fife, could find itself receiving federal dollars through a program that targets transit projects that would benefit tribes. Tapping into that federal program would lower the need for a Limited Improvement District along the other routes to fill the gap between the amounts allocated and the projected cost.

“That’s really the unique factor of the East Tacoma and the Fife routes,” Wright said.

Next stops on the route to a decision on Link light rail: 

April 2 or 9 – Tacoma City Council Study Session 

April 11 – Sound Transit Capital Committee meets

April 25 – Sound Transit Board meets