Dream big, Tacoma.
Now is the time.
With the Legislature having held up its end of the bargain, giving Sound Transit the flexibility to ask voters in November 2016 for the full $15 billion in new revenue that it will take to make the next regional transit package everything it can be, it’s time to start fantasizing about the possibilities.
Some things are a given. Any package must include the long-awaited light rail connection between Sea-Tac airport and Tacoma. As traffic continues to worsen on Interstate 5 with no remedy in sight, completing the region’s light rail “spine” — from Everett to Tacoma — is essential.
But there might be a chance to do more.
What about taking light rail not just from Sea-Tac to the Tacoma Dome, but all the way to the Tacoma Mall? Sounds cool, doesn’t it?
What about extending Tacoma’s Link all the way to Tacoma Community College? That’d be nice.
What about more Sounder service, longer trains with greater capacity, or more express buses? Couldn’t hurt, right?
It’s a very Tacoma thing to expect the worst and take a believe-it-when-you-see-it approach to big ideas. And there’s a historical precedent that backs up the skepticism. I get it, and I’ve been guilty of it.
But if the 2016 ballot measure dubbed ST 3 is to be successful next year, carrying the vote in the urban center of Tacoma — in a big way — will be part of that. And that means giving Tacoma voters not just something to get excited about, but something to get really excited about.
So let’s entertain those transit dreams of grandeur, at least for a moment.
According to Andrew Austin, who lives in Tacoma and serves as policy director for the Transportation Choices Coalition, talk of “pushing” the conversation about how far light rail can be expanded is an idea that has been “percolating” recently among local Sound Transit board members.
Among other things, getting light rail all the way to the Tacoma Mall would help realize the city’s vision for the area as a regional growth center, which includes creating a dense population hub that’s rich with jobs and development built around transportation choices.
“I think it has some real legs,” Austin says of the idea.
That’s one of the reasons getting light rail all the way to the Tacoma Mall was included in the Sound Transit long range plan last year.
But as Austin, and Tacoma City Councilman Ryan Mello tell it, perhaps “long range” won’t be as long range as some assumed.
“It’s relatively new aspiration,” Mello explains. He says extending light rail to the mall is something transit advocates have been talking about quietly for the last “two or three years,” but, as far as the general public is concerned, it’s “a new conversation for most.”
“I think it’s very legitimate,” Mello says of the conversation. “But it will be a heavy lift.”
That heavy lifting is already underway.
First, the Sound Transit board must decide just how much money it will ask voters for next year. Every indication is it will be the full $15 billion. Deciding which projects will be included is part of that calculation.
While Sound Transit’s subarea equity guidelines suggest Pierce County won’t be left out to dry, as do the politics of getting a major regional transit package passed by voters, it’s safe to say that with Seattle, the Eastside, Everett and others also jockeying for their projects, there won’t be enough cash for every jurisdiction to get everything it wants.
The good news for Pierce County is that our subarea has been generating solid sales tax returns and slightly outperforming expectations. This means that even after the cost of getting light rail from south of the airport to Tacoma, we should have some money to play with.
Which is where goals like taking it all the way to the Tacoma Mall come into play. Soon, local Sound Transit board members will be tasked with vetting and prioritizing the regional possibilities — from Tacoma-centric ideas to proposals like high-capacity bus service to east Pierce County.
They’ll then need to sell the worth and potential of those projects to the full Sound Transit board.
Mello tells me he and Mayor Marilyn Strickland recently took Seattle City Councilman and Sound Transit board member Mike O’Brien on a guided tour of T-Town, beginning the process of doing just that. O’Brien probably won’t be the last Sound Transit board member to get such treatment. The excursion was important, Mello says, so O’Brien “could really wrap his brain around our projects.”
“It was very well received,” Mello says. “He has a much better understanding of the opportunity.”
By early next year we should know exactly which projects will be included in ST 3.
Until then, when it comes to light rail, perhaps it’s the sky — and not necessarily the Tacoma Dome station — that’s the limit.