It’s summer. You’re downtown. Maybe you’ve just enjoyed an afternoon at the Tacoma Art Museum, or taken the kids to the Children’s Museum, or simply spent some time, all alone, in Tollefson Plaza, pondering its existence and the life decisions that led you there.
What to do next?
Starting in June, you’ll have a new option. Thanks to a unanimous vote by the Pierce Transit Board of Commissioners on Monday, a pilot program to operate a bus route from downtown to the Point Defiance Zoo & Aquarium got the green light.
The route — which will be tested this summer and judged on ridership, rider surveys, and attendance at attractions and businesses — will run every half hour, mainly Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays. It will start near the Art Museum, make its way along Ruston Way, and end up near the zoo.
It’s being branded as a trolley because, well, it’ll be a bus “wrapped” to look like one.
The idea isn’t exactly unprecedented. Some 25 years ago, Pierce Transit spokeswoman Rebecca Japhet said, the agency operated what was known as the “Commencement BayLiner,” which started at the Tacoma Mall and took a meandering path that serviced Ruston Way and the Point Defiance ferry dock and zoo.
A lot has changed in Tacoma in 25 years, and we are hopeful there will be a solid demand for the service.
Pierce Transit spokeswoman Rebecca Japhet
Because marketing was important even back then, the route had a tagline: “from Sales to Whales.” You know, because it went from the mall to the waterfront.
Japhet says the bus even had sea creatures painted on it. (I can’t decide if that’s better than a bus being dressed up to look like a trolley, so I’ll let you decide.)
Here’s the bad news: The seasonal route, which ran hourly 10:15 a.m. to 5:15 p.m., was canceled in 1991 because of low ridership, marking the last time bus service reached Ruston Way.
This time will be different — at least that’s the hope of Pierce Transit and community partners footing the roughly $400,000 bill for the summer-long pilot program. As Japhet points out, “A lot has changed in Tacoma in 25 years.”
Along with the obvious economic incentive of increasing attendance at waterfront businesses and the zoo, Japhet says Pierce Transit hopes the effort will “strengthen awareness of Tacoma and Pierce County as a desirable place to visit and live, and to increase transit ridership by introducing many people to public transportation that may not have tried.”
She thinks offering a bus, err, sorry, trolley every 30 minutes will work “much better than every hour, in terms of people being able to catch the Trolley without having to carefully study the schedules.”
It’s an exciting proposition for Tacoma and anyone who enjoys visiting the city’s prime waterfront and Point Defiance. What the new route might do for the parking nightmare that is taking the family to the zoo on a nice day in the summer seems worth the experiment alone.
Still, plenty of questions remain. What to expect in terms of ridership is anyone’s guess. As Chris Karnes, a transit advocate and chairman of Pierce Transit’s advisory board, observed, the limited operating schedule and frequency of trips makes projections difficult at this point.
“We don’t currently have any services with that schedule pattern,” Karnes told me, while saying he expects the new route to “be more successful than other pilot services, given the density of downtown Tacoma and Point Ruston and the regional draw of Point Defiance Park.”
But ridership isn’t the only unknown.
Will the trolleys help with summer waterfront traffic or will they be mired in it? Will there be enough pedestrians in downtown Tacoma on the weekend to supply ridership to Point Defiance? Is a trolley the best mode for a service like this or would a foot ferry from Thea Foss be a better approach?
Chris Karnes, local transit advocate and Chairman of Pierce Transit’s advisory board
“Will the trolleys help with summer waterfront traffic or will they be mired in it? Will there be enough pedestrians in downtown Tacoma on the weekend to supply ridership to Point Defiance? Is a trolley the best mode for a service like this or would a foot ferry from Thea Foss be a better approach?” Karnes wonders.
I’ll add another big question mark: If the new route is successful in getting more people to Tacoma’s waterfront, will that success exacerbate pedestrian safety concerns at the McCarver Street railroad crossing in Old Town?
“It is definitely a concern,” said Phil deMaine, the Old Town attorney who, after the November death of 28-year-old Alexandria Lewis at the McCarver Street rail crossing, launched a campaign to pressure the city and Burlington Northern Santa Fe Railway into making safety upgrades.
“It is obvious that with the continuing economic development of Ruston Way, more people will travel to and use the waterfront,” deMaine said. “That means more people will use the McCarver railroad crossing. And that means the risk of future deaths will continue to increase until all of the necessary safety measures are put into place.”
Recently, warning signs were installed near the McCarver Street crossing. But according to Kurtis Kingsolver, Tacoma’s director of public works, other important improvements — such as permanent signage, lighting, fencing to direct pedestrians to the crossing and pedestrian gates — are being evaluated, with a goal of partnering with BNSF to make them a reality.
Meanwhile, a funding source for these improvements has yet to be identified.
“I am hoping, within the next two to three weeks, we will be able to define costs better and develop a fairly solid plan we can present to the surrounding community, BNSF and the council,” Kingsolver said.
My fingers are crossed. Because summer is fast approaching.
And so, too, the Downtown to Defiance Trolley.