Tacoma Link on Commerce Street

On Monday, Sound Transit announced that it had received a $75 million Small Starts grant from the FTA for the Tacoma Link Extension, which will extend the current streetcar-like Tacoma Link through the Stadium District and Hilltop neighborhood west of downtown. This project isn’t to be confused with the Tacoma Dome Link Extension, which will bring real Link light rail trains from Federal Way to Tacoma Dome Station, where passengers can transfer over to Tacoma Link.

The Small Starts grant was originally approved by Congress last year and will cover about a third of the project’s $217 million budget, which includes contributions from Sound Transit 2 ($94 million) and the City of Tacoma ($48 million). Sound Transit says that the grant will enable construction to begin later this year and wrap up in 2022. The project will extend Tacoma Link by 2.4 miles and add six new stations, plus the relocated Theater District station (which will be renamed to Old City Hall), serving several hospitals on “Medical Mile”. Once the Hilltop extension is completed, Tacoma Link trains will run at a frequency of 10 minutes and begin charging a fare, which is currently waived thanks to a donation from the Tacoma Business Improvement Area.

22 Replies to “FTA Awards $75 Million For Hilltop Link Extension in Tacoma”

  1. It’s interesting how ST can build this for $217M for 2.4 miles where Seattle needs almost $200M for a streetcar that’s only 1.2 miles.

    I can understand a higher per-mile cost for Seattle, but the Seattle project is almost double the Tacoma amount on a per-mile basis.

    Are there any insights to why this is the case?

    1. Complete guess…Utility relocation’s for the entire route (especially historic PS), revised signalling and revised exclusive ROW.

      Tacoma likely will build in the concrete trackway footprint only and move the only utilities that conflict with the alignment.

      1. Guess from observation, on cost and street-sharing: right now, traffic and commercial activity along the route are a fraction of any of our streetcar routes. As both these things change, so will streetcar operating conditions.

        Removing parking when streetcars need their own lanes more politics than capital. Whole program for Hilltop is to modernize the neighborhood. So I worry less about streetcar operations, which I think will be handled very favorably, than about likelihood that many people who live there now won’t be there to ride the trains.


    2. Yes I would say that utility relocation is cheaper in Hill top than it would be in downtown Seattle since utility poles mean the utilities usually pay for changes, where as underground means that the project owner has to handle those costs and in downtown that’s going to include multiple communication companies such as Comcast, Wave, Century Link, etc. as well as electrical from city light. If you have built tracks in two directions dedicated than it’s probably almost a given that something would have to move.

      Now with that said, it’s still SDOT and I highly doubt that the almost doubled cost is that alone, there is definitely incompetence and lack of efficiency due to their lack of experience and the fact that from my experience, their significantly understaffed and have a high turnover in their engineering areas. A little bird told me this part, I don’t work for SDOT just to be clear.

      1. Yes I would say that utility relocation is cheaper in Hill top than it would be in downtown Seattle since utility poles mean the utilities usually pay for changes, where as underground means that the project owner has to handle those costs and in downtown that’s going to include multiple communication companies such as Comcast, Wave, Century Link, etc. as well as electrical from city light.

        I’m being shallow and pedantic here, but above ground vs. underground has nothing to do with who pays (project owner vs utility owner). It has everything to do with franchise agreements and private utility easements. Even then, good luck getting a private utility to move their utilities at their own cost, if that’s what the franchise agreement says.

      2. A transit project can’t get other entities to pay for utility relocation, but sometimes they’ll do their own projects simultaneously and roll the relocation into their project. So like in some of the streetcar segments the utilities were going to renovate decades-old infrastructure anyway, and on 23rd the street project is building interfaces for trolley wire to hang from.

    3. Tacoma has very cooperative City staff. They work WITH you to help find mutually agreeable solutions. I last worked with Seattle 10 years ago, and…. I’ll guess that things may or may not have changed much???

      Overhead on rent for your office space, laydown/staging areas, etc, due to real estate prices. When a contractor stages their materials and equipment on a vacant parking lot, they have to pay rent to the owner of that land. Multiply that by the duration of project. Rent on a parking lot in Seattle vs. Hilltop?

      Cost of living to pay your lowest wage workers (techs, administrative assistants, laborers, etc) a differential high enough to cover the extreme rent in Seattle/Renton/Bellevue/Shoreline/Burien vs. Parkland/Lakewood/South Tacoma/Roy/Puyallup.

  2. Should be a lot going on next year and the apex of construction in the region:. 3 Northgate stations, 10 Bellevue, 6 Tacoma, 4 Lynnwood and 3 FW stations, and streetcar all under various phases of construction. Will there ever be a more active year?

  3. Will the streetcar continue to have it’s own ROW? If not, they should just throw their $75 million in the garbage. Having that money in the dump would be a better deal for Tacomans, than a streetcar sharing tracks with SOVs.

    1. The new track is mainly shared in-street, since MLK Way is only two lanes + parking. Tacoma isn’t quite ready to embrace a reduced parking kind of future, especially in neighborhoods outside downtown where Pierce Transit service isn’t exactly easy to use.

    2. They’ve chosen streets that don’t necessarily serve as primary “car” corridors. If I’m driving north-south through Hilltop, I’m taking Yakima/”I” St, not MLK, unless I have a specific destination on MLK. Offering signal priority to trains should be a pretty easy sell.

      Eliminating parking would currently be a death sentence to any business anywhere in Tacoma. Bus service levels are horrid. I can see a future with a streetcar corridor reduced to no parking and potentially no auto traffic, but not in the near future. Could you imagine Seattle eliminating parking and traffic in a major non-downtown business district in 1995? Give it time.

    3. Tacoma Link has its own lane on Pacific Street but is shared-lane commerce street. The northern part of Commerce where the extension will be doesn’t look wide enough for LR lanes and two minimum car lanes. MLK is similar to 12th Avenue in Seattle if a hospital fronted on it, with two travel lanes and two parking lanes. Small cities are more resistant to removing street parking than large cities are, so I assume that’s a non-starter and so Link will have to share the car-travel lanes. But as Engineer says, I don’t think MLK is a major through street with a lot of traffic, so maybe like Seattle’s 12th Avenue or College Way rather than Broadway.

  4. Although I see this Tacoma Link expansion as a complete waste of money, it’s encouraging to see it get FTA approval. If worthless projects like this can still get funded, hopefully that means that the more important segments of LINK can still rely on federal funding, even in the current political climate.

    1. It is just as worthless as Seattle’s streetcars, except that Pierce Transit doesn’t offer good bus service, so this is an improvement on service levels.

    2. Remember that the FTA is very pleased with RapidRide and the initial Link segment and praises them as successful examples, no matter what we think of their shortcomings or grant-unfriendly design choices. Recently the D and E and maybe the C have been making explosive ridership gains which tend to vindicate that opinion, but none of the A-F were that way in their first few years of operation.

      So really what the FTA is saying is that they’re better than the US average. And as we know from the Citylab article yesterday and our own observations, the US average is very low, and if you exclude the top 10% of transit cities, the other cities’ grant-funded projects like Denver/Dallas/Phoenix light rail or Detroit streetcar are less effective than ours. So the FTA has to start somewhere with improving things, and it has the same pressure we do to not displace car lanes or parking lanes anywhere and to not build expensive grade-separated rail directly to urban neighborhoods everywhere, so it’s working within that constraint.

  5. I don’t like how they call this “Tacoma Link.” Why isn’t it called Tacoma Streetcar just like Seattle’s Streetcar. They have the same type of service and trains.

    But this is great news!!

    1. Because of early ST branding before Seattle’s streetcars were planned. ST wanted to promote Link as something really good so that Pierce wouldn’t think it was getting a second-class product. Tacoma Link was built several years before Central Link simply because it was an inexpensive project, so for a decade the main ST service were ST Express, Sounder, and Tacoma Link. Now with Central Link there’s a wide difference in service level between Central Link and Tacoma Link, while Tacoma Link looks like the same level as the SLU and FH streetcars. So it should be renamed, but that would look like downgrading it in Tacoma and giving them no hope for how much their citywide light rail plans (5-6 Tacoma Link lines) will benefit them.

      However, as I wrote to ST during a Tacoma Link feedback period, there will be a clash when Central Link and Tacoma Link meet at Tacoma Dome, and using the same name for such different levels of service might become confusing and jarring long-term. An ST rep replied saying that ST2’s Tacoma Link brand and styling have not been decided yet. so it’s possible that it might change completely. In that case it might possibly change to Tacoma Streetcar or something else, with a different paint job and color scheme on the trains and a different station look. Or it might remain the same. I assume we’ll see proposals and feedback periods for that at some point, as we did for the station naming.

      1. Interesting ! Didn’t realize how much earlier Tacoma Link opened. I’m curious what ST decides when Central Link and Tacoma Link end up meeting at Tacoma Dome. I’m hoping they re-brand it to Tacoma Streetcar Network.

        What are the 5-6 tacoma link lines you are referring to? I haven’t heard of any studies or plans for those.

      2. The lines are in Sound Transit’s long-range plan, and several corridors were studied in the run-up to ST2 and ST3. When the Seattle Monorail was a thing, it had five or six lines in its long-range plan, and Tacoma Link is something similar. The number of corridors get confusing because three of them that were studied separately — Tacoma Dome to downtown, MLK, and S 19th Street — are now going to be interlined as one line, so do we count that as three or one? Other corridors if I remember include something to Lakewood, 6th Avenue, S Pacific Street, and Puyallup Ave. Puyallup Ave got hammered as the lowest-ridership corridor studied, so it may never be considered again. I don’t remember anything in north Tacoma but there may have been.

        The LRP as of the 2015 revision has:

        * “a potential light rail corridor from Downtown Tacoma to Tacoma Mall and DuPont, and defined the terminus of the light rail spine at Tacoma Mall”. That’s a bit ambiguous but I think it means extending Central Link to Tacoma Mall (which is an explicit goal of the Pierce boardmembers for ST4), and having Tacoma Link overlap it to Tacoma Mall and continue to Lakewood and DuPont.

        * “a potential light rail corridor from Downtown Tacoma to Tacoma Community College”. That could mean the S 19th Street extension in ST3, or maybe 6th Avenue.

        * “a HCT corridor from Downtown Tacoma to Parkland” (i.e., Pacific Ave). That could mean the Route 1 upgrade in ST3, or BRT beyond that. If it does mean the ST3 plan, that’s been described as “RapidRide-like”, and RapidRide has not usually been considered HCT.

        If the focus ends up on a single line throughout south Tacoma, them it would look like: TCC – S 19th Street – MLK – Downtown – Tacoma Dome (?) – Tacoma Mall – Lakewood – DuPont. I assume the southern part would be around South Tacoma Way.

        I’m not sure how it would serve Tacoma Dome, because the existing station is a few blocks east of Pacific Street, so it would require trains to detour to it and back. Maybe they intend the transfer to be at Tacoma Mall instead. But that seems like an awfully big detour of the way for somebody on MLK or downtown going to Seattle or the airport. Or maybe it would operate as two lines from Tacoma Dome. Or maybe some trains would bypass Tacoma Dome station? That doesn’t sound too likely either. So I’m not sure.

      3. Mike’s giving just one anecdote on big transit branding confusion looming in our region. Whether it’s numbers, letters, colors, name, combinations — it’s on an ugly path. I think that an interagency regional transit branding agreement is badly needed.

        My personal preference has evolved for anything that isn’t a local bus to be primarily branded first by letter followed by as a number — Light rail (Link) as L1, L2, L3, etc; Streetcars (including Tacoma Link) as S1, S2, S3, etc; Conventional rail (Sounder) as C1, C2 or S1,S2; Ferries as F1, F2, F3; etc; Freeway express bus (including freeway BRT) as X1, X2, X3, etc; Arterial BRT (RapidRide) and limited stop buses as R1, R2, R3, etc. That way, every rider knows what kind of vehicle and service to expect when they look at a map or a sign.

        In contrast, ST put out a signage survey a few months ago. It showed colors for every Link line (creating confusion with Swift), and to put the first letter of each color on the signage (creating confusion with RapidRide) — and no color discussions for Tacoma Link have apparently occurred. I can only shrug…..

      4. I support the German/Russian solution of a mode letter for each line. The specific letters are less important, but in Germany there’s no confusion between S1, S2, S3 (S-Bahn lines) and U1, U2, U3 (U-Bahn line). The letter tells you what kind of station or vehicle to look for, and the number tells you which vehicle to board.

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