Peter Callaghan: Link expansion faces a tough road, whichever route is taken

Staff WriterNovember 14, 2013 

When members of the Tacoma City Council were debating which alignment was best for a planned extension of the Link light rail system, they were repeatedly reminded that the maps shouldn’t be taken literally.

That is, the various routes out of downtown – up to Stadium, down Sixth Avenue, along Martin Luther King Jr. Way, toward the East Side up Portland Avenue — were corridors, not specific routes.

We’re now starting to see what Sound Transit planners meant. When the council recommended — and the Sound Transit board accepted — that Link extend from Ninth Avenue and Commerce Street to the Stadium District, the assumption was that Stadium Way would be the route. But only one of the five alignments now being studied would use Stadium Way.

Among the others are some unexpected and expensive means of getting Link trains from Ninth and Commerce streets, where they terminate now, to the Stadium District and then to Martin Luther King Jr. Way.

One method would be to climb through either the Pierce Transit center on Commerce and its Theater Square on top or the parking garages and parking lots just south of the Spanish Steps and the old Elks Lodge. From there, the dual tracks would use either Broadway or St. Helens Avenue to the Stadium District. The expectation is that the tracks would share vehicle lanes with cars and buses as they now do on Commerce.

The other idea presented by Sound Transit is to have two different lines – the existing route between downtown and the Tacoma Dome and a new line to the Stadium District. Riders would have to get off one train and walk one block between Broadway and Commerce or two blocks between Market Street and Commerce to board the second train. Neither of those alignments meets ridership or travel time standards set by Sound Transit, so none is likely to be recommended.

All of the alternate alignments are more than the $150 million estimate for the extension, but Stadium Way is the cheapest at $165 million.

The other alignments are $20 million and $44 million more than that. And the transit agency doesn’t even have enough cash lined up to build the cheapest alignment. As of now, $50 million will come from the Sound Transit taxes approved by voters. Another $50 million could come from federal transit funds and $50 million from so-far unidentified “partners.”

Frankly, Stadium Way is both the cheapest and least disruptive (unless, of course, you live on just-recently reopened Stadium Way or use it to get to work). But some on the council don’t like that route, which has less development potential because of the bluff on one side. Using Broadway or St. Helens instead could trigger more development, they argue.

Of course this gets back to my main complaint about the route selection for the Link expansion — moving people from where they live to where they want to go seems the last thing on policy-makers’ minds, replaced by economic development dreams.

Perhaps the point of showing the alternative alignments is to demonstrate how unappealing they are — perhaps to get the council to grudgingly go along with using Stadium Way. How unappealing? Powering through the Pierce Transit center and the park above would eliminate one of the only pieces of green space/gathering space in that part of downtown. It also would disrupt the Broadway Center for the Performing Arts, blocking its loading docks and trashing the plaza in front of the Pantages Theater.

Using the vacant lots near the Elks would disrupt pending plans to redevelop those lots when McMenamins finishes its remodel of the Elks. Parts of Broadway and St. Helens have recently been renovated under a Local Improvement District funded by adjoining property owners.

Sound Transit spokeswoman Kimberly Reason said the staff will work with the city to identify one or more options for environmental review by early next year. Selection of a final alignment is expected to happen late 2014 or early 2015, she said. If the money is pulled together, construction would start later in the decade.

Peter Callaghan: 253-597-8657 peter.callaghan@ @CallaghanPeter

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