NOTE: This post is copied in its entirety from an article I wrote. It is the latest entry of my blog, Transportation Matters.
Do consider the lunacy of the journey foisted upon the traveling public: after riding at least 80 minutes from Capitol Hill or Downtown Seattle in order to reach Tacoma, riders must disembark Link and await an untimed streetcar transfer—for an additional 15 to 25 minutes of travel time—all to reach the UW Tacoma campus, the city’s premier museums, key bus transfers, inner-city neighborhoods, and the workplaces of the downtown. To any reasonable person unfamiliar with the current rail arrangement in Tacoma, this would be deeply illogical rail planning. And yet this will be the Tacoma rail transit future, the consequence of early 1990s urban planning for a then-stricken community, financed in 2016 for a city on the rebound, and not opening until ±2032 to service a city that has since been utterly remade.
Sound Transit should strongly consider extending Link Light Rail into Central Tacoma. The agency should be advancing such an alignment not only because it makes the most sense from a community and transit-planning perspective, but also because rail investments of this sort clearly have a dramatic impact on their adjacent neighborhoods. Tacoma is primed to accept new urban development and continue to grow into a regional urban showcase—as long as the rail facilities are provided.
A conceptually dubious megaproject already beset by a two-year realignment delay and steadily rising costs (now approximately $340-million per mile), Sound Transit’s Tacoma Dome Link Extension (TDLE) marches inexorably onward. While preliminary engineering design and corridor planning continue within the larger DEIS review process, which is to be released in mid-2022, none of that work will correct a fundamental flaw that undermines the premise of the entire Link-spine concept: trains will never actually travel into Central Tacoma.
After spending vast sums of public funds to route a rail corridor into the South Sound, Link Light Rail will purposefully miss its economic and cultural heart. Instead, it will terminate in a suburb-focused transfer center that is within walking distance of large swaths of permanent surface parking and a drive-in movie theater. Places ignored entirely by the rail line, whose focus is ostensibly to connect key regional destinations, includes the transformative University of Washington Tacoma urban campus, a sophisticated museum center and pedestrianized waterway, a revitalized Downtown with the largest office center in Washington State outside of Seattle or Bellevue, and innumerable local transit connections. TDLE proposes to mandate transfers to access these critical points of interest that, for any other sensibly planned rail corridor, would be on the main line.
The fact that TDLE is to end at its namesake Dome Station is not exclusively the fault of Sound Transit. Tacoma Dome has been very intentionally planned as a major transit node since at least the early 1990s by a variety of civic and institutional players, and there has been success in implementing these plans and improving the immediate neighborhood. With the construction of a nearby apartment building already complete and more in the pipeline, the Tacoma Dome (or old Hawthorne) neighborhood might very well achieve some prominence in due time, even with its constrained tracts of developable parcels. Still, the Tacoma Dome area is unequivocally and intentionally not Downtown Tacoma, and this will always be the case regardless of the presence of a few new residential structures.
Much like how Northgate is neither the equal of Westlake nor of University Street, it would be nonsensical to prevent the newest rapid-transit rail line of the Puget Sound from accessing the urban core of Tacoma. Long neglected and overlooked, Central Tacoma has worked hard to secure decades of thoughtful urban rehabilitation, and the product of that effort is a historic city that is thriving in all of its corners. The Tacoma of the 1980s and 1990s is not the Tacoma of today, and the future of the city is no longer in doubt—indeed, the success and well-being of the place is generally understood as certain. With the heyday of urban Tacoma no longer relegated to the distant past, then no longer should its urban core be treated with the disdain that is exemplified by the termination of critical rail services one mile or more from its primary destinations.
CENTRAL TACOMA LINK EXTENSION (CTLE): THE MAPPED PROPOSAL
This proposal details a superior Link Light Rail alignment for direct rail service to Central Tacoma, the Central Tacoma Link Extension (CTLE). This proposal should be contrasted with the current Sound Transit effort to terminate the multi-billion dollar rail line at Tacoma Dome Station—a transit facility tailored to the suburbs—via a route requiring overly complex engineering and civil structures.
The trackways of the CTLE take advantage of existing rail rights-of-way and wide roadways, and will feature strict separation from vehicular traffic. The modern prototype of the at-grade sections of the extension can already be found on Pacific Avenue itself, as well as in the Rainier Valley. As the CTLE is at the terminus of the Link Light Rail spine and travels at 15mph (25kmh) max through curves, and modestly faster within tangent stretches of Pacific Avenue featuring timed traffic lights, the main line operational issues that can be found within the Rainier Valley will not be present here. Nevertheless, crossover tracks are proposed immediately east of the elevated Tacoma Dome Station to ensure continued rail services if an event were to impact the at-grade section of the CTLE.
The platform at Union Station is to be widened by 6-feet to 25-feet total, achieving the minimum width for island platforms of the Link Light Rail system. The revised platform width will have an impact to at least one lane of travel on the east side of the platform, or could potentially require revisions to both tracks and their adjacent travel lanes. Both Central Tacoma and Tacoma Dome Stations will have at least 30-foot wide island platforms.
Differing DC voltages between the existing streetcar line and Link Light Rail present a problem across the shared trackage through Union Station, but are resolved in a straightforward manner by dual mode technologies and related design solutions (see Pg. 1, and Pg. 720). Dual mode “train-trams” are commonly utilized by tram networks throughout the world that also operate over interurban lines (see Pg. 42).
This proposal echoes a system first constructed in 1902 for the Puget Sound Electric Railway, albeit with modal separation that will ensure timely and effective services through Pacific Avenue and the urban core of Tacoma.
This proposal was designed using Sound Transit design criteria for light rail infrastructure and facilities.
Note: The Central Tacoma Link Extension (CTLE) is designed to integrate fully with Union and Tacoma Dome Stations, providing seamless transfers to the city’s streetcar, bus rapid-transit and core bus network, the SPIRE Regional Rail system, and the Central Washington High-Speed Rail Line.
THE COSTS: REAL AND OPPORTUNITY
This approximately 1.7-mile extension proposal would cost at least two-hundred-million additional dollars to construct that is not presently financed by the Tacoma Dome Link Extension. Conversely, potential cost savings are obtained over preferred Sound Transit alignments by simplifying the westerly approach into the City via the Pacific Highway and Puyallup Avenue, taking advantage of wide rights-of-way (with the latter having previously accommodated rail infrastructure). This, as opposed to the circuitous routings through Fife, across the river parallel to I-5, and bisecting city blocks toward and then above East 26th Street (or even Freighthouse Square itself).
To those who might suggest that the streetcar line already serves the CTLE corridor effectively, the value of this extension would be limited or even detrimental. To be clear, there are real physical and monetary costs to constructing this largely at-grade extension into Tacoma’s city center. To those who share my views, however, of the value of a comprehensive rail system that does not unnecessarily impose transfers, nor avoids essential urban destinations wholesale—and which takes advantage of the inherent flexibilities of light rail technologies for dedicated rail operations in an urban environment—the potential benefits of the extension could not be clearer. Certainly, they make more sense than major alignment deviations to serve a second-tier airport, and are equally, if not more so, deserving of the type of rail connection being delivered to Alaska Junction.
From here, I’ll let my plan speak for itself.
Central Tacoma Link Extension (CTLE) Project Maps
- ArcGIS Interactive Map, detailing the whole of the CTLE project on a viewer-friendly map.
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