With all the pomp and pageantry befitting a decision that was already made, Tacoma City Council passed Resolution No. 38664 on April 30, its formal endorsement of the North Downtown Central corridor as the choice route for the Tacoma Link Light Rail system expansion.
“The City Council hereby expresses its support for the North Downtown Central (E1) corridor as the preferred alternative for the Tacoma Link Light Rail system expansion project, which will be a significant and important investment in Tacoma and an important addition to the regional transit system,” the resolution states.
The route would run tracks from the current Theater District Station, run up Stadium Way to Martin Luther King Jr. Way and continue down to Hilltop’s South 19th Street. The route is projected to cost $133 million, but $50 million of local partnership dollars is still needed to match Sound Transit and federal grant dollars.
During the public comment period before the formal vote, Hilltop residents championed the route to their neighborhood in hopes that it will push the once troubled area into prosperity.
“The Renaissance is beginning,” resident Aaron Wilson said.
East Side residents countered with their case for tighter connections with the rest of the city and easier access to everyday services such as schools, museums and grocery stores that a Portland Avenue route would bring. They also talked about the economic development potential of having light rail service between the South Sound’s entertainment hub at the Emerald Queen Casino, which recently announced plans for a $200 million expansion, and Tacoma’s tourism industries.
“You don’t want to ignore the golden goose,” Edwina Magrum said, noting the $430 million in local economic activity created by tribal operations each year. “You want to nurture it.”
The endorsement of this route was officially 8-1 with Councilmember David Boe opting out, saying that the route was too expensive, at $50 million a mile, and would fail to create an economic boom the way other routes would have since Hilltop is already improving. Boe believes that the Link will only bring higher buildings and higher rents to make the economics of any new development pencil out. He likened the MLK route to the “compromise” of the current tracks that run along Commerce instead of the original plan of Pacific Avenue only to dead end in what is essentially a back alley of the Theater District.
“It puts a poor decision on a poor decision,” he said. “It will be painfully expensive to expand in the future.”
Councilmember Marty Campbell tossed a “hail Mary” into the political decision with a proposed amendment to the endorsement what would have still championed the MLK route but would have also requested a look at extending the route from Tacoma Dome Station to Portland Avenue if money were available. That route would service the Salishan community, the Portland Avenue mixed-use district, connect industrially zoned open land to commercial hubs, make a step toward connecting Tacoma to Sea-Tac International Airport lines and help solve downtown event parking issues through a partnership with the Puyallup Tribe for use of the Emerald Queen Casino lots. The route would also open up another pool of federal grant dollars that specifically seeks to address transportation issues for federally recognized tribes.
“It may find a way to self fund,” Campbell said.
The amendment was a proposed compromise for a decision that pitted neighborhoods against each other because it contained a section of the main “route not taken” that would have run from Tacoma Dome Station to Portland Avenue and up to East 29th Street at a cost of $119 million. Sound Transit’s local stakeholders group of business and civic leader has endorse the concept of reaching Portland on one end and MLK on the other as a way to connect the Salishan neighborhood to the rest of the city as well as boost economic development around the Dome and East Side as well as tie Hilltop to downtown.
Campbell’s amendment got the backing of Boe, Councilmembers Joe Lonergan and Victoria Woodards, but failed to pass the nine-member council. The remaining council members feared it would weaken the endorsement message as Sound Transit seeks federal grant dollars against other transit projects around the nation.
But now the city finds itself in a position with dueling endorsements going to Sound Transit’s Finance Committee on May 9, before a full board vote expected on May 23. The detailed routing and funding research then starts. Mayor Marilyn Strickland is a Sound Transit Board member.
In other transportation news, council members wore their Transportation Benefit District Governing Board hats this week to formally vote on how to spend the estimated $4 million the city will get this year from the $20 vehicle licensing fee that will start being collected in June to help fund road repairs.
The money does not go far in a city that has an $800 million backlog of needed repairs, but it is something.
Most of it, about $3.6 million, will go toward street repair. About $2 million of that will go toward residential street chip sealing and overlaying, with about $500,000 going toward work on main streets. Specific road repairs – potholes – will receive $1.1 million and make the Tacoma Weekly's Pothole Pig happy.
About $300,000 will go toward curb and sidewalk work and $60,000 will go toward upgrading traffic signals that are failing or based on outdated technology.