Our Views: Link expansion destined for budgetary woes

Sound Transit is gathering comments about its roster of routes to extend Link rail to the Hilltop. Written comments online will be collected through Jan. 22, but the decision is largely a no brainer – even if the actual route to serve Martin Luther King Jr. Way seems flawed. But that is a discussion for another time.

At issue now is how to get the light rail tracks from Commerce Street to MLK while staying under budget, promoting the most spin-off economic development and avoiding the removal of as many parking spaces as possible. The quick answer to Sound Transit’s directive is that no such route exists. The least expensive route – therefore the likely one for adoption – is $15 million over budget without even a detail design being drafted or a shovel being turned. That route would run tracks from the current station at Ninth and Commerce to Stadium Way to Division and then take a left to MLK to South 19th Street. The tracks would either stay on MLK or loop down to ‘J’ Street for its return trip. The lowest construction costs for this route are $165 million, when the project’s target costs were set at only $150 million that would be split among Sound Transit, “local partnerships” that could include Local Improvement District tax dollars, corporate funding and in-kind city services and yet-awarded federal grants.

The other routes would cost between $185 million and $210 million, including one that would essentially kill Broadway by running tracks right in front of the Pantages Theater and displace the Theater on the Square community park that houses the farmers market and the heart of First Night. Those estimates likely put them out of reach, but an up swell of public support might keep them alive. That tide isn’t likely to come, so it is safe to say these options are dead in the water.

But what is frustrating is the options under consideration to get the least expensive route to cost even less, namely cutting back the route with an “interim terminus” at either Sixth or 11th or cutting back on the frequencies of the trains so that a trip would take 20 minutes to run the full line from the Tacoma Dome Station. A long, long time ago – way back in 2008, voters approved the tax package to fund Sound Transit improvements like the Tacoma Link expansion. But the figure set at the time was $79 million for local projects. Sound Transit cut that back to $50 million, which put any reasonable expansion out of reach. Now cost projections have put the best of the worst routes out of reach as well.

This is a whole process that will affect Tacoma for generations, and transit officials are looking for ways to do it cheaply rather than correctly. Absent from the conversation thus far is what happens when the Link expands again.

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