Sound Transit officials hope the latest round of open houses that showcase the eight possible new tracks for Tacoma’s Link light rail will naturally whittle that roster down to about six for further study next year. Options range from running rail from the North End to downtown, along Hilltop’s emerging “Medical Mile,” through the Eastside 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 impact 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. Sound Transit's Tacoma Link Expansion Alternatives Analysis project will identify and study alternative travel corridors for expansion of the Tacoma Link light rail system. 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’s those factors that drive the financial train. A route, for example, might have higher ridership than others, but not 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. Council member Marty Campbell supports the running of a line from Portland Avenue in his East Tacoma District to the current station at the Tacoma Dome. He promotes the route as one that would connect the low-income residents of the Salishan development to the rest of the city as well as solve parking issues facing the 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 also sits along strips of vacant and underused land that would be prime redevelopment sites, adding to the route's high overall potential, he argues. "That changes the whole conversation," Campbell said."Now you are maximizing the investments we've already made." Urban transportation issues in Tacoma was one of the main reasons Council member David Boe ran for City Council in the first place, having done his graduate work on light rail routes and community impacts in London. He was not a fan of the final route of the current light rail because it cut off Broadway as one of the few main streets through town, divided what is now Tollefson Plaza and ended at a less-than vibrant strip of Commerce. "One poor decision can have ramifications for a very long time," said Boe, noting that since the potential expansion routes now under discussion run in different council districts, each of the district-bound council members are championing the route in their neighborhoods. "It's an ‘us against them’ mentality," Boe said, noting that he, Ryan Mello, Mayor Marilyn Strickland and Victoria Woodards are at-large council positions, so they sit in unique positions to look at what expansion routes would benefit the entire city, not just a particular district. "It has to be part of a whole city-wide transportation plan." That said, however, Boe would rather have a shorter extension or expansion soon rather than a longer route decades from now when funding is found and permits are issued. A shorter route would not only show progress for an overall system but spark immediate development and commercial potential along whatever route is selected. "That has been shown time and time and time again," he said. "If you built rail to an undeveloped area, it will bring development." The initial screening of the routes will run through Spring, after which the Sound Transit board will select the route officials who will then research costs and timelines. Sound Transit has committed about $100 million to the expansion, so more funding sources will be needed once a preferred route is selected. Those specifics will be roughed out in 2013. “Right now, we are in the middle of the process,” Sound Transit spokeswoman Kimberly Reason said. “All of the routes are working their way through the process.”