Politics & Government

Inside the proposals to grow light rail with Tacoma’s population

Link Light Rail train moves along Pacific Avenue in downtown Tacoma on Dec. 17.
Link Light Rail train moves along Pacific Avenue in downtown Tacoma on Dec. 17. lwong@thenewstribune.com

When President Obama signed a $305 billion highway bill this month, he reauthorized a grant program that is being leaned on for nearly half the $153 million cost of the Tacoma Link expansion through the Hilltop neighborhood to South 19th Street. A subsequent budget deal meant the project’s $75 million federal grant had officially cleared Congress, bringing construction of the long-awaited streetcar segment closer.

Before that project ever breaks ground, Sound Transit is working up plans to ask the region’s voters to approve another long-term plan that could include stretching the Tacoma Link line even farther: 3.7 miles straight west on South 19th Street to Tacoma Community College.

A separate project under consideration would stretch plans for city-to-city light rail, the Link train, beyond the Tacoma Dome station to the Tacoma Mall, making it possible to ride the train from the geographic center of the city to Sea-Tac Airport and Seattle.

With Tacoma projected to gain 127,000 new residents in the next 25 years — a 62 percent increase over its current population — Sound Transit’s estimates say that if built, each of the two proposed projects would carry 6,000 to 8,000 riders daily.

Their combined price tag for 7.1 miles of new urban rail would be more than $1.5 billion, about 10 times the money being spent to bring the city’s streetcar line from 1.6 miles of downtown to a four-mile circuit serving mixed-use and residential neighborhoods.

Planning documents say those projects have the potential to help shape the growing city, from reducing car traffic to encouraging denser pedestrian-oriented development.

In the real world, they face several hurdles.

First, they — and the light-rail connection from the Tacoma Dome station to Federal Way, which would tie Tacoma into the Seattle-based Link trains network — have to make it from the 45-item list of potential Sound Transit 3 projects to the agency’s planned November 2016 ballot proposal.

The odds of that happening remain unclear, since Sound Transit hasn’t formally decided how ambitious the Sound Transit 3 tax proposal will be.

THE BUDGET DICTATES THE PLANNING

Using the high-end cost estimates for each potential project, the Sound Transit 3 possibilities include more than $40 billion of new construction ideas through the region, from Everett light rail to a potential Sounder commuter rail extension to DuPont.

The agency’s funding plans for Sound Transit 3 call for asking voters to approve a combination of new sales, motor-vehicle and property taxes that would cost a typical adult in the district about $17 a month and bring in $15 billion over 15 years.

Add in another $11 billion from other sources — mainly existing taxes, federal money, bond issues and fare collection — and the agency would have $26 billion to spend over the 15-year life of the tax.

Two other options — to extend the life of the tax to either 20 years or 25 years — would each make more new-project money available. The biggest commitment, the 25-year-plan, would plan for $48 billion in revenues, enabling the agency — under current calculations — to build out possibly the entire wish list, if the money projections hold true.

The other major obstacle to Tacoma’s potential light-rail future is securing voter approval, which historically isn’t a sure bet.

The first Sound Transit 2 proposal lost in 2007 before a more modest version of it won in 2008. Pierce County’s voters cast a lower percentage of votes for it each time than did voters in King and Snohomish counties, the other two served by the agency.

The changing demographics of Tacoma, though, could have implications for how the city votes. In November, a road-repair tax issue passed by a minuscule 22-vote margin, a milestone for a city that had gone 47 years since its voters last approved a spending measure to maintain city streets.

Sound Transit is also building its upcoming spending proposal for the November 2016 ballot, which like the successful 2008 proposal is widely expected to be a high-turnout election.

WHAT THE PROPOSAL WOULD BUILD

The Tacoma Link expansion along South 19th Street would serve the same route that Pierce Transit bus route 2 currently runs along, a corridor from downtown and the Hilltop neighborhood to a transportation center at Tacoma Community College.

Officials from Pierce Transit and TCC say they would welcome having streetcars serve Pierce Transit’s second-busiest route, with an average of 2,846 boardings each weekday.

“If Sound Transit were to build light rail here, we would provide feeder service (connectivity) to those boarding locations along the route and put the remainder of our time back into service elsewhere in our system,” Pierce Transit spokeswoman Rebecca Japhet wrote in an email.

The draft plan would build seven stations along South 19th Street, with the streetcar running in the center of a widened street from Martin Luther King Jr. Way to state Route 16, and in a separate right-of-way west of state Route 16, which it would cross on a separate bridge from the road.

Total estimated cost for the work: between $642 million and $687 million, Sound Transit says.

TCC President Sheila Ruhland said in a statement that bringing Tacoma Link west “would be a natural fit for our school,” especially for students who could use it to travel to classes at the University of Washington Tacoma, which is on the existing line.

“This light rail project would be terrific for students and would greatly benefit both colleges,” Ruhland said.

Extending the Link light rain line from the Tacoma Dome station to the Tacoma Mall would run about $1 billion and use a mix of street-level, elevated and covered-tunnel railways.

The draft plan calls for two new elevated passenger stations, at Tacoma Mall and on South Pine Street, with a new 500-car parking garage at the Tacoma Mall station.

According to agency projections, the population within half a mile of these stations is expected to more than triple, to 10,400 residents from 3,300, in the next 25 years.

Unlike the trolley-line extension, building the regional light-rail spine out to the Tacoma Mall depends on a project that isn’t yet a sure thing. Bringing Link rail south from Federal Way to the Tacoma Dome station would come first, and the projected cost of $3.4 billion to $4.2 billion for that segment of train service could reduce the chances of bringing the inter-city trains deeper into Tacoma.

WHAT’S NEXT

Using studies released earlier this month, Sound Transit has built a website mapping out details and costs of these and other projects on the table for the Sound Transit 3 ballot proposal.

After a board vote tentatively set for March to set a draft list of projects for the ballot measure, it’ll ask for formal citizen input to finalize the plan for the November election, Sound Transit spokesman Geoff Patrick said.

“We’re encouraging people to familiarize themselves with the options,” Patrick said.

U.S. Rep. Derek Kilmer, D-Gig Harbor, said Congress’ passage of a transportation bill helps enable the necessary long-range transportation planning to accommodate projected changes in the South Sound by providing “a predictable and stable partner” for Sound Transit and other regional agencies.

He cited the $75 million federal slated to help Link’s Hilltop extension as an example that “makes Tacoma an even more vibrant place” and said he hopes federal agencies will embrace further opportunities for long-range infrastructure planning.

He was asked how ideological divides in Congress affect this goal.

“The reality is, transportation infrastructure investment has been, and in my view should continue to be, a bipartisan priority,” Kilmer said. “Getting people from place to place is not about moving left or moving to the right. It’s about moving forward rather than moving backward. Generally, I think, there’s a real appreciation for that.”

Derrick Nunnally: 253-597-8693, @dcnunnally

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