Opinion

Faster than a speeding bullet? Not light rail to Tacoma

From the editorial board

Commuters step off a Link light rail train at Commerce Station in Tacoma in April. Sound Transit proposes spending more than $50 billion over the next 25 years to expand light rail, commuter train and express-bus services across the Puget Sound region. Some of that money would be spent to expand light rail from Federal Way to the Tacoma Dome Station and eventually beyond.
Commuters step off a Link light rail train at Commerce Station in Tacoma in April. Sound Transit proposes spending more than $50 billion over the next 25 years to expand light rail, commuter train and express-bus services across the Puget Sound region. Some of that money would be spent to expand light rail from Federal Way to the Tacoma Dome Station and eventually beyond. News Tribune file photo

Impatience rules today’s millennials to such a hyperadrenalized level, it also seeps into the lives of their moms and dads, becoming a dominant trait for Generation Xers and Baby Boomers, too.

If a webpage takes longer than 10 seconds to load, fingers flit across the smartphone screen and press the reload button. Amazon same-day delivery service is all the rage, elevating instant gratification to new heights. And why wait like a grandma for your weekly network sitcom fix when you can download a whole season or more on Netflix?

The Puget Sound region has gained fame for pioneering technology that feeds this high-velocity lifestyle. Conversely, the region is infamous for something that brings it to a screeching halt: transportation gridlock. The Seattle-Tacoma metropolitan area ranks as having the fourth-worst traffic in the country and the sixth-worst in North America.

Commuters who turtle past the Tacoma Dome on Interstate 5 every day can fool themselves that it’ll get better when road construction is finally done. But the reality is that more people will be moving here — a total population of nearly 5 million in the region by 2040, including more than 60 percent growth in Tacoma and Lakewood, and more than 80 percent in Puyallup, between 2010 and 2040, according to the Puget Sound Regional Council.

The newcomers will expect a reasonable amount of mobility. We old-timers should, as well.

With that in mind, Sound Transit is in the finally stages of crafting a proposal for the November ballot called Sound Transit 3. It will build on two previous massive taxpayer outlays for an evolving network of light rail, Sounder trains, express buses and other transit projects. ST1 and ST2 were approved by voters in Pierce, King and Snohomish counties in 1996 and 2006.

ST3 comes with a jaw-dropping $54 billion price tag, and has drawn criticism by tapping property taxes for the first time, on top of the usual mix of sales and motor vehicle excise taxes.

But surprisingly, officials say the biggest pushback in the last few months of public meetings and polling has not been fueled by sticker shock.

Sound Transit’s most formidable obstacle might be that nagging condition known as impatience.

The agency’s original ST3 timeline pegged the completion of the basic light-rail “spine” (connecting Tacoma, Seattle and Everett) at 25 years. For light rail to run all the way to the Tacoma Dome from existing stations in Seattle, the projected finish was 2033.

Tacoma Mayor Marilyn Strickland, who’s also the Sound Transit vice chairwoman, knows that’s not soon enough. She joked with the News Tribune editorial board last week that a lot of ST3 voters would be in assisted living facilities by then.

As for the original plan of light rail reaching Everett by 2041? And a spur to Tacoma Community College completed that same year? Well, without getting too morbid, let’s just say many of this year’s voters won’t be in assisted living anymore.

To their credit, Sound Transit planners and board members — including Strickland and Pierce County Executive Pat McCarthy — went back to the drawing board this spring and returned with timelines sped up by as many as five years. Light rail is now projected to reach Federal Way in 2024, the Tacoma Dome in 2030, Everett in 2036 and TCC by 2039 (plus accelerated station openings in Redmond, West Seattle and Ballard).

They did it by adding $4 billion in bonding capacity to the original $50 billion cost, which extends the duration of taxes but doesn’t increase the annual taxpayer payout.

A key decision point looms, with the Sound Transit board set to vote on the revised plan June 23. Citizens should arm themselves with information both pro and con; a Tacoma City Club forum on Wednesday presents an early opportunity.

Are there other ways to get trains moving south sooner? Some public officials — such as Tacoma City Councilman Ryan Mello, who writes in today’s TNT — are pushing local governments to streamline their land-use bureaucracies. Sound Transit CEO Peter Rogoff told the editorial board much the same thing. “Our region needs to decide how much they love process versus how much they love traffic.”

But in the end, there’s only so much time savings and efficiency that can be squeezed out of drawing routes, engaging the public, acquiring land, engineering alignments, obtaining permits and building out the infrastructure for a 116-mile light-rail system.

By November, voters will have to decide if they’re willing and able to invest in quality-of-life improvements for their kids and grandkids, much as they do when voting on school bonds.

If anyone expects light rail to reach Tacoma with the speed of an Amazon delivery drone, Sound Transit 3 is not for them.

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