Questions remain as council primes for Link endorsement vote

MORE ONLINE: View the route matrix and summaries by visiting the online version of this story.

Investors would have done well if they copyrighted the phase “Good question. I’ll get back to you” and its derivatives prior to the Tacoma City Council’s latest – and last – study session before the officials endorse a route for the Link light rail expansion. The April 16 chat with Sound Transit officials was chock-full of the otherwise money-making phrase.

Councilmember Marty Campbell questioned the ridership projection of 3.5 million users a year given that the projections seem larger than the full capacity of the system of just 2 million. The answer lay in the definition of “a rider.”

He also worked Sound Transit spread sheets on cost projections and wondered how a straight light rail line along Portland Avenue from East 25th to 44th streets would cost $20 million more than running a rail line from the Theater District Station up a hill and onto Stadium Way to 6th Avenue. Answer unknown outside of that is the projected cost.

Councilmember David Boe had a flurry of questions, including how the routes were judged on their economic potential, since one route would front some of the largest swaths of open commercial space in the city that are zoned high density and industrial yet ranked lower than one route that is more built out. The answer was in the difference between commercial development and residential development, but that was “fuzzy.”

“I don’t see how these are put together because they seem contrary to our zoning code,” Boe said, also noting that the 6th Avenue route ranks high on economic development potentials when it has a lack of open and under-developed land when compared to other routes.

Another Boe question involved the potential success of a local improvement district (LID) along whatever route is chosen. The higher the assessed property values along the route translated to a higher rate of success to tax those property owners to raise the $50 million needed in a “local partnership” to make the route funding package pencil for federal grants. One trouble with that is that the routes have nonprofit and governmental offices along them that are tax exempt, notably MultiCare Health System on the Martin Luther King Jr. routes and Puyallup Tribal land on another. Those facts were not apparently part of the evaluation since funding part of the study after the route is selected.

Initial answers to those questions, however, are in the works for consideration by the time the council begins pondering its endorsement for a vote later this month. And there are a lot of issues already known to consider.

Two hybrid routes that were added in the final weeks of the endorsement process have since been reviewed with mixed results but added to the debate.

Tacoma City Manager T.C. Broadnax, with a nod from the council, had Sound Transit look at a route that would run about a mile from the Tacoma Dome Station to Portland Avenue and East 29th Street with one expansion and from the South 25th Street and Pacific Avenue Station to Martin Luther King Jr. Way, with three station options. One would be at South 19th Street, another at South 11th Street and another at 6th Avenue if money were available. It is not. The full route would cost $199 million. The shortest route would cost just $120 million but operational costs would be high – as much as $20 million a year – because of the steep grade going up Tacoma’s hillside and the need for more trains.

“We would basically have to operate two systems,” Sound Transit Senior Project Manager Val Batey said.

The current 1.6 mile Link costs just $4.3 million a year to run trains. The top options under review would run trains for about $10 million a year with twice as many trains as the current line.

A stakeholders group of business and civil leaders, including the Puyallup Tribe, recommended its own hybrid that would run tracks from the Tacoma Dome to Portland Avenue and East 29th Street and would run tracks to Martin Luther King Jr. Way from the current Theater District Station up Stadium Way Division Avenue. It too had several station options based on available money. The least expensive would be to MLK and 6th at $130 million, followed by MLK and 11th at $160 million or all the way to 19th for $170 million.

It would cost about $12 million a year to operate.

The two hybrid options shared the drive to connect the current line to Hilltop as well as to link Portland Avenue to downtown. The former would provide transportation from the hospitals to downtown. The latter would help tie in the low-income Salishan neighborhood to downtown as well as provide a tourism link to the Puyallup Tribe’s Emerald Queen Casino complex at a time when it announced plans for a $200 million complex along the route.

The tribe has also offered to allow Link riders free parking at its 2,500-stall parking complex, which would help solve parking issues that have plagued Tacoma Dome concerts and larger events at Greater Tacoma Convention and Trade and Center. City dollars to build parking have largely evaporated during the city’s recent budget troubles. Staff at both city venues have complained that they cannot compete with other venues because of their lack of available parking, made more dire with part of the Dome’s parking lot now occupied by LeMay: America’s Car Museum.

The council will consider a resolution in support of Tacoma's preferred Sound Transit expansion route, and possibly an alternate, during its April 30 meeting. The Sound Transit Board will then vote on a route on May 23. More detailed review of the route, particularly how to fund a $50 million “local partnership,” would then follow. Those dollars could come from an LID assessment on property owners along the route or other revenue sources.

Another aspect of the Portland route that has some folks supporting it is that it would qualify for federal dollars used to fund transportation projects to and from Native American reservations. Using those dollars would lessen the need for an LID or other local tax to come up with the $50 million local match of the $150 million project.

“That is something I have been thinking about a lot,” Campbell said.

Whatever route gains the council nod, Mayor Marilyn Strickland said that it is important that the route provide a spine for future Link expansions that would reach to other neighborhoods.

“It is important to understand that we eventually want a city-wide system,” she said.

All totaled, Sound Transit has reviewed 24 route ideas and has pared the list down to three top choices and the two alternatives during the last two years. The other routes on the short list are: one that would run from the Theater District station to Stadium and up to 6th Avenue and end at Union Avenue for $163 million; one that would run from East 25th Street to Portland Avenue for $119 million; and one that would loop up Stadium from the Theater District and down MLK to South 19th Street for $133 million. The target budget for the new line is $150 million that would be split evenly between Sound Transit, a federal grant and the yet-to-be determined “local partnership.”

The next step toward that could come with a transportation master plan that would aid the next route selection that will likely be funded by a yet-to-be forward Sound Transit 3 package in the works for a ballot in 2016.

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