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Traffic Q&A: Tacoma’s North 21st Street on the cusp of big changes

The 15 towers that stretch across the entire median of North 21st Street are scheduled to come out in the next couple of years, per a contract the Tacoma Public Utilities board approved a couple weeks ago. When they do, the city hopes to redesign the street. That could mean bike lanes and pedestrian improvements.
The 15 towers that stretch across the entire median of North 21st Street are scheduled to come out in the next couple of years, per a contract the Tacoma Public Utilities board approved a couple weeks ago. When they do, the city hopes to redesign the street. That could mean bike lanes and pedestrian improvements. Staff photographer

Q: Why is North 21st Street two lanes in either direction where the power lines run? And maybe it could be reduced to one lane with a bike lane? It is very narrow for larger vehicles to use without crossing over into the other lane. Might reduce speeding also. Does traffic volume warrant two lanes? — Lonnie W., Graham

A: Your timing is excellent, Lonnie — that stretch of North 21st, a little over a mile from Proctor Street to Highland Street, is about to see its biggest changes in nearly a century.

Per a contract the Tacoma Public Utilities board approved a couple weeks ago, the 15 hulking towers that stretch across the entire median of that otherwise pleasant road — plus one on the south side of North 21st near the Cushman Substation — are scheduled to come out in the next couple of years. When they do, the city hopes to redesign the street.

That could mean bike lanes and pedestrian improvements — a big category that includes sidewalks, running paths and benches — as well as removing a lane of car traffic each way, said Josh Diekmann, traffic engineer with Tacoma Public Works.

“A traffic study is already underway, which will help determine how many lanes will be required,” Diekmann wrote in an email.

Before you lapse into an immediate vision of this slice of Tacoma as Uptown New Orleans on the Puget Sound, there are caveats.

First, those very tall towers, erected in 1926, will see their 90th birthdays before they come out. Second, the city has zero dollars allocated toward doing this work and doesn’t have a plan yet of any more complexity than a few lines on a map.

“We’re kind of a ways out,” utilities spokeswoman Chris Gleason said. “We’re just getting started.”

But these are details, and this is a project looking to overhaul a central street of the city on a scale that brought the word “exciting” into use at the utilities board meeting Oct. 14.

Under Tacoma Power’s $933,000 contract, the Virginia-based Leidos company is to remove the towers and replace them with yet-to-be-designed single poles for the high-voltage lines. Gleason said the idea of burying the lines was discarded because of the expense and complexity of putting power-transmission lines underground.

“The towers themselves are just in really bad shape,” Gleason said. “They’re getting rusty. They’re not in good shape. We just need to upgrade them.”

The removal is a piece of the utility’s effort to improve its infrastructure enough to decommission nearby Cushman Substation, also built in 1926, and possibly even sell as surplus the three-story concrete building on North 19th Street next door whose monumental architecture looks out of place next to all the utility’s machinery around it.

“It’s such an ugly substation,” Gleason said, “so we're going to be taking all the electrical equipment out that’s there now.”

The stately concrete building, though, will remain. It dates from an era when public-works projects were built with an eye toward permanence, even if it has outlived its usefulness for power-company purposes to such a degree that it’s used as storage, including for the special utility wires that cross the Tacoma Narrows. At that October meeting where the contract was approved, TPU board president Bryan Flint speculated about turning it into condominiums.

“People around here have all kinds of ideas about what it could be,” Gleason said.

The substation — including all 16 utility towers — were put on the National Register of Historic Places last year, which could complicate this redevelopment work. That aspect, like most of the work, is just now coming before officials for definitive plans.

Also to be sorted: what kind of poles will replace the towers, which Gleason said are 80 feet tall but are listed as 120 feet tall on the National Register of Historic Places paperwork, and where exactly they will be placed to carry the big power lines. TPU hopes to put them farther away from the intersections than the towers now stand, to allow drivers better views.

Flint said at the meeting that he wants the new poles to be more aesthetically pleasing than what the thoroughfare now features. With construction slated for early or mid 2017, even the design is still being figured out — given certain constraints, of course.

“You can imagine there’s not a huge amount of variation when it comes to power poles,” Gleason said.

If the design, the studies, community engagement and the money all come through, North 21st Street could look a lot more inviting in a few years.

Derrick Nunnally: 253-597-8693

derrick.nunnally@thenewstribune.com

@dcnunnally

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