Matt Driscoll

Matt Driscoll: Not too early to think about extending light rail to Tacoma


The good news is, nearly everyone agrees that next year’s Sound Transit 3 ballot measure will include the chance to take a big step toward completing the region’s light rail “spine” by funding light rail to Tacoma.

As Shefali Ranganathan, the deputy director of the policy and advocacy nonprofit group Transportation Choices, tells me: “I think it’s pretty much a given.”

Now the big question is: If voters approve the 2016 ballot measure, generating up to $15 billion in regional transit revenue over the next 15 years, how will that light rail get here from Federal Way?

Last week, Sound Transit officially unveiled completed drafts and comparisons for all the projects on the lengthy list of ST3 possibilities. And the public (and more directly, Sound Transit’s board) have a lot to choose from.

Here in the South Sound, that means everything from potential Sounder service to DuPont, or from Puyallup to Orting. It also means possibilities I’ve written about before, such as extending light rail all the way to the Tacoma Dome or getting the Link light rail to Tacoma Community College.

By next spring, we should have a good idea which projects make the cut and will be included in the ballot measure.

But that will be far from the end of the decision-making process.

I think it’s pretty much a given.

Shefali Ranganathan, deputy director of Transportation Choices, on whether getting light rail to Tacoma will be part of the Sound Transit 3 ballot measure

As we’ve seen up north, expect plenty of debate in the years ahead among cities, transit advocates and regional leaders on Sound Transit’s board over how light rail makes its way to Tacoma from South 320th Street in Federal Way.

There are two official possibilities: Building tracks along Interstate 5, which figures to be the cheaper, faster and potentially less disruptive route, or building along state Route 99, which might offer more possibilities for what transit wonks like to call “TOD” — or transit-oriented development.

I allude to the north because that’s where the battle has played out over how to get light rail from SeaTac Airport to Federal Way, a project that was started with money from Sound Transit’s last ballot measure.

Many transit and design advocates pushed for a route along SR 99, for the reason stated above.

Ultimately, Sound Transit’s board voted unanimously in July to give the I-5 option from SeaTac to Federal Way a “preferred alternative” status, pending an environmental review.

Many cities potentially affected by light-rail construction along SR 99 argued that it would be too disruptive to economic activity — contentions that, while perhaps warranted in the short term, perhaps failed to give enough weight to the long-range implications of what mass transit can do to spur investment and smart land use.

In other words, the decision may prove to be shortsighted.

If things go as planned, eventually we’ll have a similar decision to make about how to get light rail from Federal Way to Tacoma. But already the conversation is full of nuances.

As Ranganathan acknowledges, the difference in TOD potential between an I-5 route and an SR 99 route is “marginal” once you get south of Federal Way.

She says Transportation Choices has not taken a position on a preferred route, saying that far more study and analysis is needed — and will take place in the years ahead.

In Fife, for example, SR 99 and I-5 run parallel and in close proximity, meaning smart design could likely bridge the gap.

Meanwhile, SR 99 is still something of a no-man’s land between South 356th and Fife.

Whatever the fastest route is makes the most sense for riders.

Tacoma City Councilman Ryan Mello on choosing between Interstate 5 and State Route 99 in Fife

Staunch transit advocates such as Tacoma City Councilman Ryan Mello support the need for TOD, and the kind of design that supports it and serves the most riders. But he points to differences between the SeaTac-to-Federal Way decision and the one that will confront our area.

“Whatever the fastest route is makes the most sense for riders,” Mello says, observing that “there’s not really the land-use pattern between Fife and Tacoma” that you see between SeaTac and Federal Way.

That means he favors the I-5 alternative at this point. He says fewer stops, along with more frequent and convenient service, are essential to attract riders and remove single-occupancy vehicles from our clogged roadways.

Still, it’s hard to predict the future.

Our best hope is probably to make decisions now that positively impact our children and our children’s children, taking into account the power of transit as more than simply a people mover.

“What we are trying to continue to push (Sound Transit) and local government to think about is to do the economic analysis over not just five, ten or 15 years. … Really think this as sort of a 50- to 100-year analysis,” Ranganathan explains.

“It’s not often that we get to make these sorts of investments.”