Sound Transit project mangles Tacoma trees. Maybe there’s a lesson in this ‘unfortunate incident’

Sound Transit has a lot on its plate these days, to say the least. The survival of a few street trees, recently damaged during work on the Tacoma Hilltop Link route near Wright Park, might seem trivial by comparison.

The agency is deep into planning a $54 billion package of regional megaprojects promised to voters in 2016; Tacoma area commuters are eager for a light-rail connection to Seattle by 2030. At the same time Sound Transit is juggling projects authorized by previous ballot measures, such as the 2.4-mile Hilltop Link extension.

Oh, and there’s the little matter of a lawsuit heard by the state Supreme Court this week — a pivotal moment in a taxpayer revolt against soaring car-tab costs. The suit seeks to switch Sound Transit’s funding to a formula that doesn’t inflate vehicle values. At stake is up to $18 billion the agency says it needs to complete projects on time.

Amid all this big-picture, high-level stuff, however, transit officials and construction crews must take care not to erode public trust doing their day-to-day work on the street.

Here in Tacoma, for instance, neighbors can be passionately protective of urban greenery, particularly in the Wright Park area.

They definitely noticed last month when street trees near the intersection of Division Avenue and Martin Luther King Jr. Way were left with ugly wounds. Tacoma resident Diane Burke, who walks her dog there twice a day, took pictures and contacted us; she used the word “mutilated” to describe the large downed branches and gashes in the bark several inches long.

Rumors circulated that a crew with Sound Transit’s contractor, Walsh Construction, damaged the trees as part of the route extension. The truth is more complicated. The trees stand in a parking strip across the street from the project; as traffic was redirected around the work zone on the west side of Division, trucks struck the trees that overhang the east side.

In a statement, Sound Transit said it regretted contributing to the “unfortunate incident” and pledged to “implement procedures to verify that any shifts in traffic associated with our construction have adequate clearance.”

Reached by phone Wednesday, spokesman Scott Thompson said: “Wright Park is an important place in Tacoma, and we appreciate people’s sensitivity to the urban landscape.”

Indeed, Tacoma has been a designated “Tree City USA” for a quarter century. Our arboreal beauty is enhanced through groups like the Tacoma Tree Foundation and efforts like the annual urban tree sale, now underway through the Pierce Conservation District.

But local urban foresters, both amateur and professional, face a huge challenge: A 2011 study estimated Tacoma’s tree canopy at 19 percent — less than Seattle, Spokane, New York and Baltimore. And while the city set a goal of 30 percent by 2030, experts say we’ll be lucky just to have no net tree loss in the next decade — bad news for wildlife habitat, clean air and overall environmental health.

That’s why the “unfortunate” Division Avenue street tree incident is noteworthy, more for symbol than substance. Sound Transit certainly will have to take out foliage for its various projects in and around Tacoma. Call it part of the price of progress. But it must be done with gentleness, precision and good stewardship; for every tree removed, at least one should be planted.

The City of Tacoma recently started cracking down on private “timber trespassers” who cut, prune or remove vegetation on public property. Shouldn’t similar vigilance be applied to Sound Transit and any other government that lays claim to public right of way?

Yes, Sound Transit has a full plate as it develops a multi-billion-dollar mass-transit spine connecting Pierce, King and Snohomish counties. But to build trust, it can’t focus solely on big-picture thinking.

It must take pains not to miss the trees for the forest.