Northern portion of Prairie Line Trail takes shape

Planners designing the northernmost section of the Prairie Line Trail through downtown Tacoma have run into some unexpected problems, but city officials say they still expect the section to be complete by next summer.

The bicycle and pedestrian trail is being built on the former Northern Pacific right of way that brought the nation’s second transcontinental railroad to the Puget Sound area in 1873.

Project manager Chris Storey said the current design for the Pacific Avenue-to-waterfront portion had to incorporate several fixes and as a result is $300,000 over the city’s $1.75 million budget.

The city is trying to stay within existing funds – a mix of federal and state grants and city funding – by finding alternative designs with a lower price tag.

One potential budget-buster: the addition of a retaining wall along Hood Street. After surveying the land, the design team realized that the cross-slope is too steep for a trail, said Alan McWain, project manager at BCRA, which is designing the trail section.

The solution is to use a retaining wall to level the ground and support a 20-foot-wide pathway. The wall would be constructed of warm-colored Wilkeson stone with honeysuckle vines hanging down, McWain said.

“We were also worried about vandalism and people tagging the wall,” he said. “With this system, it’ll be hard to tag and is low maintenance.”

Other unforeseen issues include the discovery of more soil contaminated with oil and metal than originally expected. The soil will need to be removed when construction of the trail starts in 2015, Storey said.

More added cost could come from the potential relocation of the traffic barrier on the South 15th Street bridge and a ramp connecting Hood Street to Dock Street to accommodate a 14-foot path suitable for bicyclists and pedestrians.

The traffic lanes on the bridge, currently 32 feet, 4 inches wide, could be reduced to 27 feet, according to BCRA design reports.

The design team is beginning to flesh out ideas for signage and entryways onto the trail that incorporate historical elements.

The team has plans to sandblast a “shadow” message into the concrete of the Pacific Avenue entryway with information about the history behind the railway, McWain said. The design was inspired by the “ghost signs” that remain of advertisements once painted on brick buildings during the early part of the 20th century.

“We want to create a trail that isn’t just for the first-time user,” he said. “The more people use it, the more they’ll see these little details that will educate people on what was here.”

Wild prairie grass will grow out of the main entry sign on Pacific Avenue with a directory and built-in benches nearby. The benches and sign will help direct trail users around a small billboard that stands on the old railroad right of way. BNSF Railway granted the billboard owner a perpetual easement long before it donated the land to the city.

In April, the railroad and the city finalized a deal for BNSF to donate a 20-foot-wide section of right of way along Hood Street as well as an 80-foot-wide section south of the University of Washington Tacoma campus. The city has yet to receive the signed ownership paperwork from the railway, but city officials say they are not yet concerned that the delay will put a crimp in plans to finish the trail.

The Pacific Avenue-to-waterfront section is roughly one-third of what will eventually be a mile-long trail.

The section running through the UWT is under construction and projected for completion in the fall. The other city portion of the trail – the leg from South 26th Street to South 21st Street – is in the conceptual phase.

“I’m excited to see pedestrians using the trail to get to the waterfront and back. Even professors could use it on their lunch break,” McWain said. “The abandoned railway was a missed opportunity, and we’re turning this into a positive asset to the city.”