Link routes reduced following initial review, set for final vote this spring

The selection of a “preferred option” and an alternative route for the expanded Link light rail line in Tacoma will likely have more to do with budgets than overall impact and potential ridership. It certainly won’t be a product of a city-wide master transportation plan. The city doesn’t have one of those, a fact that frustrates more than a few people. Tacoma City Councilmembers Ryan Mello and David Boe are among them.

“I am beyond frustrated,” Mello said, noting that the city has a six-year transportation plan that he calls more of a roads plan than a long-range vision of the city’s transportation needs that should have been part of the discussions when the first Link system was built 10 years ago. But it wasn’t, and it hasn’t been developed since. That leaves the current discussions about the Link expansion occurring without answers to seemingly basic questions about how best to coordinate all forms of transportation in the coming decades. “I’m trying to think 10 steps ahead,” Mello said.

That could change with the Transportation Improvement District formation that now collects $20 from vehicle license tabs, since Mello plans to forward the idea of using some of the revenue from that fee to develop a city-wide plan that would cover roads, bike routes, walking paths and sidewalks, bus routing and future Link expansions when that day comes.

“Without it, we have missed the boat time and time again,” Mello said.

That plan, however, will come too late for the current Link discussions.

Sound Transit is entering the final stages of the process to select a way to expand light rail service. A top choice and a fallback route are expected to face a Sound Transit Commission vote this spring after transit officials do further research of each of the six routes under initial consideration. The options have been studied for the last two years and once included 24 routes or variations.

The routes on the short list are: 6th Avenue to Union Avenue with a route along Stadium Way and Division Street. A variation of that route would loop down Jefferson Street to connect back to downtown’s museum district station. Another option would run along Stadium and Division before running to 19th Street and Martin Luther King Jr. Way. Expanding the current line from the Dome District to 48th and Portland is another idea, while another would run the line from the Dome District station into Fife along Pacific Highway. The final route under review would see tracks running along Portland Avenue then 38th Street to the Tacoma Mall along 48th Street.

The 2.9-mile route along 6th Avenue is projected to cost $163 million. It has high potential ridership by providing transit service to downtown and the Tacoma Dome, although that service is actually slower than current bus routes on the strip. It also has low potential of economic development spinoffs because the area is largely built out as well as could affect historic and park sites in the area.

The downtown loop option would run 4.2 miles at a cost of $249 million. It touts a high potential of ridership with fast service to the Tacoma Dome, particularly for disadvantaged and low-income riders. On top of its high price tag, it could create noise concerns and could affect park and historical sites.

The Martin Luther King Jr. Way route would cost $133 million and span 2.3 miles if built. It would also have high ridership and serve minority communities but also run along a route that is largely built out, which limits economic development opportunities as well as could have noise and landmark effects.

The Portland Avenue route would cost $119 million and run 2.3 miles. It better connects the area to downtown, serves minority communities and has little impact on landmarks. Although it has few connections to other transit options, it would run along a route that does not support higher density and would have little potential for local funding through a tax district.

The Pacific Highway route would improve transit time from the area to downtown Tacoma, and would be the first big infrastructure in the area in more than a decade. It also has a large amount of vacant land that could spark redevelopment and economic growth and has a low impact on landmarks. The route, however, would cost $164 million to run 3.3 miles and would serve the lowest number of regional destinations and transit connections. It also has the lowest potential ridership.

The Tacoma Mall route would run 5.4 miles at a cost of $292 million along a route with few redevelopment sites, but has the largest number of regional destinations and community centers with little impact to landmarks. The route, however, is also not faster than current bus routes, lacks much economic development potential and is more expensive than other routes. Those facts make it unlikely to be among the routes forwarded for further review.

Once a top choice is selected in April, the funding dance begins. Sound Transit has projected about $150 million in funding for the route expansion, with about $50 million coming from the regional transportation agency, $50 million through federal grants and the remainder coming from partnerships and other sources, including options for a Local Improvement District and private investments that could include talks with the Puyallup Tribe to contribute to the route heading into Fife if that route makes the cut this spring.

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.

And then there is also talk of another Sound Transit ballot measure coming down the line as early as 2016.

“Those are very, very preliminary discussions,” Sound Transit spokesperson Kimberly Reason said.

Anyone can complete an online survey through Feb. 28 at http://www.surveygizmo.com/s3/1152431/Tacoma-Link-Expansion-Survey-February2013.  

More details about each of the routes can be found with the online version of this article at http://www.TacomaWeekly.com as well as at http://www.SoundTransit.org.

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