Tacoma Link ridership heads downhill

Riders come and go at the Link light rail platform at the Tacoma Dome Station this month. Fewer people are riding Link in Tacoma, for a number of reasons.
Riders come and go at the Link light rail platform at the Tacoma Dome Station this month. Fewer people are riding Link in Tacoma, for a number of reasons.

While commuters flock to light rail lines in Seattle, ridership of Tacoma’s Link has been eroding.

Annual ridership of the 1.6-mile line topped out at 1,024,053 in 2012, according to data from Sound Transit, which operates the line.

The regional transit agency expects 963,000 riders this year, and October’s numbers, the most recent available, showed a 7.6 percent decrease year-over-year from the same month in 2015.

In fact, ridership dropped year-over-year in eight of 10 months reported in 2016, Sound Transit statistics show. The biggest change came in April, when 9 percent fewer riders boarded Tacoma Link compared with April 2015.

“Yes, this is concerning,” said Kristina Walker, director of Downtown on the Go, which advocates for commuting options that don’t involve single-occupancy cars.

Theories as to why Tacoma Link ridership is in decline vary, from job losses in the downtown core to lack of parking at the Tacoma Dome Station to the fact that the line really doesn’t serve as a commuter link, more as a circulator.

Still, transit advocates and supporters of downtown Tacoma said they hope better promotion of the line and a planned extension onto the Hilltop by 2022 will help reverse that downward trend.

Steady growth – for awhile

Tacoma Link opened for service in 2003.

It runs from the Tacoma Dome Station west along South 25th Street before turning north and either following or paralleling Pacific Avenue to South Ninth Street.

Riders can board or exit at six stations.

It will cost $4.6 million to operate the line in 2016, but rides are free thanks to a $29,000 annual subsidy from Tacoma’s Business Improvement Area.

The $29,000 is the amount of revenue Sound Transit estimates it could generate over costs if it began charging a base $1 fare on the trains, which have been free to ride since the service began.

That subsidy likely saved ridership from declining even more. Sound Transit has estimated it could lose more than 175,000 riders annually by charging a $1 fare.

Ridership saw steady growth until 2009-10, when the numbers dipped. Growth restarted in 2011 and built to more than 1 million in 2012.

Ridership began to decline in 2013 and dipped back below 1 million in 2014. Last year saw a gain of 1.8 percent to 980,705, according to Sound Transit, but the agency is projecting another decline for 2016, down to 963,000.

“This year, we also saw a very slight reduction because of fewer special events at the Tacoma Dome,” agency spokeswoman Rachelle Cunningham said. “The decline for Tacoma Link comes out to less than one person per trip.”

Limited use for now

Tacoma Link’s declining numbers come at a time when Sound Transit is celebrating large ridership increases on its Central Puget Sound light-rail system, which have been boosted by the recent openings of lines to the city of SeaTac and to the University of Washington in Seattle.

“Strong, continuing growth in people choosing Link light rail sent weekday ridership soaring 71 percent for the third quarter of 2016, with the number of Link riders surpassing regional express bus users for the first time in Sound Transit’s history,” the agency said in a news release last month.

“Link averaged 67,893 riders each weekday from July to September, up from 63,577 weekday riders for April to June. On Sept. 30, Mariners and Husky football games helped generate an estimated 101,000 Link boardings.”

Sound Transit officials and others say it is unfair to compare Tacoma Link to the central system, which many people use to commute to work.

“I also believe that part of why it’s growing elsewhere and not here is because ours is essentially a downtown circulator and not a vehicle for commuting like University Link,” said Walker, of Tacoma Downtown on the Go.

Jim Bowman, who lives in Tacoma, called Tacoma Link mostly decorative.

“It reminds me of the Seattle center monorail,” he told The News Tribune via Twitter. “It looks cool, but serves no real transit purpose.”

Battling two trends

The “it doesn’t go anywhere” argument is a popular one and might explain an overall low ridership number.

“As it exists, I have no desire to walk down the hill to ride,” Tacoma resident Sam Pingree said via Twitter. “Even when I have the desire, there are few places for me to ride on the current line that I couldn’t also walk to.”

That sentiment does not explain decreasing ridership but economic forces and the success of long-range commuting options might.

“It is directly related to the number of businesses we have downtown,” Walker said. “As we grow, Link ridership will grow. We saw a dip when Russell left and when part of DaVita left.”

Russell Investments moved its headquarters and 1,100 employees from downtown Tacoma to Seattle in 2010. DaVita, the nation’s largest kidney-care company, moved about 350 employees from its downtown Tacoma offices to Federal Way in 2013.

Another factor might be the success of the Tacoma Dome Station as a regional transit hub.

Sound Transit and Pierce Transit, both of which use the two-tower parking garage as a Park & Ride, have reported that most spots are filled by regional commuters by early in the morning on weekdays.

That leaves few free parking spots available for students at the University of Washington Tacoma or downtown workers who’d like to park there and take the Tacoma Link into town.

UWT occasionally surveys staff members and students about their commuting habits, said James Sinding, who manages the university’s transportation programs.

In 2012, 381 of the school’s 3,600 students responded to the survey. About 18 percent said they parked for free in the Dome District before making their way to campus, presumably aboard the Tacoma Link, Sinding said.

Earlier this year, 341 of the school’s 4,850 students responded to the survey. About 7 percent reported parking at Tacoma Dome Station and then going to the campus, again presumably on Link, Sinding said.

He said the working theory for the decline is that there’s no longer parking available for students at the Tacoma Dome Station.

“From word of mouth, it’s full a lot of the time from people parking there to commute to Seattle,” Sinding said.

Hilltop to the rescue?

So what’s to be done, aside from attracting more businesses into downtown?

Walker said her organization needs to do more to communicate that Tacoma Link is available and free.

“At our Link and Drink, we talked to many people who either didn’t know it was here or didn’t know it was free,” she said of an October event at which people used Tacoma Link for a pub crawl, “and even more who didn’t know how easy it is to use. So we’ve got our work cut out for us.”

Walker said Downtown on the Go recently began a campaign called, “Why drive when …,” that is aimed at educating people about the ways they can get to downtown Tacoma without using their cars.

“The posters have just gone up for ‘Why drive when … Antique Row is only 3 Link Stops from UWT,’ ” she said. “People don’t always realize just how easy it is to get around downtown without their cars.”

The planned expansion of Tacoma Link from its terminus at South Ninth Street through the Stadium District and onto the Hilltop also should help ridership, said transit advocates, riders and Sound Transit officials.

“The expansion will make a huge difference by including a whole new area of commuters who didn’t have walkable access from their home to the Link in the past,” Walker said.

Pingree agreed.

“If the TacLink extension were done, I'd ride every day,” he said.

Sound Transit hopes to open that extension by 2022.

Adam Lynn: 253-597-8644, @TNTAdam