Tacoma council stays with downtown-to-Hilltop Link

Staff writerApril 30, 2013 

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In the end, Tacoma’s City Council formally selected the same downtown-to-Hilltop route for its preferred choice to extend the city’s Link light rail system that it tentatively picked last week.

But the council’s action Tuesday hardly resembled an exercise in rubber-stamping.

It came only after heartfelt testimony offered by about 20 Tacoma residents and a failed amendment floated by East Side Councilman Marty Campbell.

“This is the one resolution that unites us, it doesn’t divide us,” Campbell said in proposing the measure. “It doesn’t pit communities against each other.” The amendment, which had sought support for a hybrid route that incorporated all of the Hilltop line, but also included a proposed extension to the East Side, died by a 5-4 count.

After it failed, the council voted 8-1 to back the so-called “North Downtown Central Corridor” – a hook-shaped, 2.3 mile route to the Hilltop estimated to cost $133 million.

The preferred option – referred to among eight alternatives as the E1 route – would extend the Link from downtown up Stadium Way, then curl to Martin Luther King Jr. Way, before heading to South 19th Street.

Supporters of the Hilltop route said they backed it because it offers the greatest opportunity of any option to draw a large ridership, connect residents to Tacoma’s health care institutions and other employers, and to spur economic growth.

Mayor Marilyn Strickland contended it would also help Tacoma with a lingering image problem, by finally pushing redevelopment of the city’s once infamous Hilltop neighborhood “over the finish line.”

“Really for me,” Strickland said, “this is about finishing what we started.”

In casting the lone no vote, Councilman David Boe argued extending a route up Stadium Way to the Hilltop would ultimately prove disastrous by increasing downtown congestion, leading to major neighborhood “upzoning” and boxing the city in for future Link extension options.

Noting the existing 1.6 mile Link line between downtown and the Dome District already offers poor extension possibilities, Boe contended the council’s support of the Hilltop route only compounds the problem.

“The reality is, we’re stuck with having to expand a poor decision,” he said. “Adding the E1 would stack a poor decision on a poor decision.”

With its formal recommendation now clear, the council will send its preferred choice to the Sound Transit directors board, which is expected to make the final decision this month.

The board could veer away from the council’s recommendation and choose its own route; it has done so in the past.

But “historically, the ST Board has given considerable deference to the preferences of partner jurisdictions while continuing to weigh all relevant factors,” spokeswoman Kimberly Reason said.

Regardless, construction of the proposed Link extension remains dependent on funding. Tacoma’s project still would need to beat out others for a $50 million “Small Starts” grant from the Federal Transit Authority and raise up to an estimated $50 million from yet unspecified partners to match transit tax revenues and help cover the expansion.

Estimated cost factored strongly into the council’s decisions Tuesday.

In floating his amendment for the hybrid route – which also won the most support of any alternative from a 21-member stakeholders group earlier this month – Campbell committed to prioritize funding for the Hilltop portion first, with design work on the East Side extension coming only “when such funding is secured.”

The idea, he said, would be to leverage community support from the Puyallup Tribe to one day help fund the proposed East Side portion, which would run between the Tacoma Dome Station and East 29th Street near the tribe’s Emerald Queen Casino.

Donning yellow T-shirts, about a dozen East Side residents – including several teenagers from Salishan – rose to support Campbell’s amendment. During public testimony, some said the East Side’s neighborhoods were languishing without connections to job, education, food and other opportunities elsewhere in Tacoma.

“Show the younger generation that anything is possible, even if you live on East Side,” Salishan resident Trinie Finik, 18, pleaded to the council.

While noting his compromise route fell “a little short” of the Salishan housing community, Campbell added it “does show that intention” to take a next step toward it.

But in the end, Campbell got only three other members to join in support of his amendment: Boe and Councilmembers Joe Lonergan and Victoria Woodards.

Noting the hybrid route came in at nearly $180 million, Councilman Ryan Mello said its price tag pushed it well beyond the project’s scope to remain competitive for federal funding.

“Unfortunately, at the end of the day, I can’t support this amendment,” Mello said. “…We have to make really tough decisions with scarce funding.”

Several council members who supported the Hilltop route added that cheaper, single-corridor option would send a clear and concise message to the Sound Transit board. As Councilman Anders Ibsen put it, the choice provided “minimal ambiguity” for potential funding.

While some residents worried the Hilltop extension only would usher in gentrification that could price out the neighborhood’s longtime residents out, others echoed Strickland’s sentiments.

“E1 is definitely the right choice,” Hilltop Business District president Eric Crittendon told the council. “This is something that will push us over the top.”

Lewis Kamb: 253-597-8542

lewis.kamb@thenewstribune.com

blog.thenewstribune.com/politics

@lewiskamb

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