Page Two articles are from our reader community.

The publishing of the Central Tacoma Link Extension (CTLE) proposal within this blog has stirred a large debate regarding how Link should properly serve the City of Tacoma over a decade from now. There was broad agreement that terminating services at Tacoma Dome Station was deeply unsatisfactory, with most commenters agreeing that a natural terminus for the regional metro system is, indeed, Downtown Tacoma.

However, among the many proponents of such an extension, there were legitimate concerns of how it would be accomplished. Where CTLE came under routine fire was on two fronts: its interaction with the existing streetcar system, and the location of the Central Tacoma Station. Although these points are addressed extensively on these pages and on other websites, they are real concerns that warrant further investigation. The CTLE surface option remains the cheapest and most cost effective manner of delivering trains into Central Tacoma. That station, even without extensive bus connections, has independent utility as a rail station in an urban core. Still, it is worthy to consider alternative alignments into Tacoma that: one, have no impacts on the existing streetcar system; two, more finely integrate Link with the existing Downtown transit corridor along Commerce Street, and; three, furthers the conversation of getting trains into the city center.

A preliminary review of alternative alignments into Downtown Tacoma produced three distinct alignments, whose components could be mixed to produce a larger variety of routing options. Of course, the first option is the original surface alignment. The three new alignments include substantial tunneling or aerial segments. Costs have not (yet) been considered and are highly variable depending upon the construction method and ultimate scope-of-work. Worthy of note, the impacted areas are predominately surface parking lots, a wide avenue, or the margins of a freeway, all of which should dramatically reduce construction costs relative to other large rail projects through a developed urban quarter.

TUNNEL: Pacific Avenue is a wide thoroughfare and should be a prime candidate for cut-and-cover tunneling. This manner of tunneling is disruptive, but it can be substantially less expensive than deep bore tunneling and quicker to construct. Of course, TBMs should remain on the table if it is determined that their method of construction could deliver a better product for the city.

  1. A surface and tunneling mixture. This proposal preserves the Union Station-area track sharing arrangement of the CTLE surface alignment, but then sends trains into a tunnel under Pacific Avenue. Directly under Pacific Avenue, a new station could be constructed just south of the intersection of 9th and Pacific, or trains could be sent westerly into the large property now hosting the multi-story parking garage owned by Commencement Plaza, LLC. This property would be purchased by Sound Transit and would accommodate a seamless bus/Link transfer facility, along with affordable and market-rate housing and commercial businesses. The City Center Station would be a gamechanger for the City of Tacoma and the regional transit system.
  2. An aerial and tunneling mixture. This proposals abandons in its entirety the surface alignment of the CTLE and has no track sharing with the existing streetcar system. Instead, an easterly and largely aerial alignment hugs the west side of I-705, curving around freeway facilities both horizontally and vertically, to provide a new approach into Downtown. Union Station / UWT would be served by a new side-platform rail station to the east of the History Museum, requiring a rebuild of the Bridge of Glass that fully integrates into the platform system. At 109 South 15th Street, presently a lone building surrounded by a sunken surface parking lot, the track would eventually rest underneath future development as it begins a true tunnel alignment that curves toward Pacific Avenue. With only surface parking lots and a wide avenue above, the construction method again favors cut-and-cover tunneling. Once under Pacific Avenue, the line again either terminates directly under Pacific Avenue, or it shifts west under the parking garage property for a larger regional transportation facility (City Center Station). The latter is preferred.

Note: both tunneling alignments feature a pocket track in lieu of tail tracks that would otherwise extend a train length beyond the platform. This dramatically reduces the size and scale of the scope-of-work underground. Additional analysis should be performed to determine if pocket tracks located beyond Tacoma’s urban core would eliminate the need for a third track in the Pacific Avenue tunnel.

AERIAL: An aerial alternative exists that is not represented within the plans. They were removed from consideration as being too complex, too visually obstructive, and for making only marginal improvements to local transit system integration over the proposed Central Tacoma Station of the surface alignment.

  1. A largely aerial alignment. This proposals abandons in its entirety the surface alignment of the CTLE and has no track sharing with the existing streetcar system. Instead, an easterly and largely aerial alignment hugs the west side of I-705, curving around freeway facilities both horizontally and vertically, to provide a new approach into Downtown. Union Station / UWT would be served by a new side-platform rail station to the east of the History Museum, requiring a rebuild of the Bridge of Glass that fully integrates into the platform system. Near the I-705 offramps at East 15th Street, both the at-grade and aerial approach to access A Street would require presently unknown impacts to the offramps. The offramp to A Street, in particular, may need to be destroyed to accommodate a northerly extension onto A Street. Given the great number of I-705 connections to and from Downtown Tacoma, this would seem to be a modest impact to the area highway system. Still, such a project would require complicated engagement with the State and the federal government. Once on the A Street viaduct, trains would either terminate on A Street somewhere between East 10th and 12th Street, or the trains could swing sharply via a reverse curve on 12th Street into the alley. There, a station could be sited at 110 South 10th Street. This building, now a multi-story parking garage, would be replaced by an aerial station facility along with affordable and market-rate housing.

Note: for the aerial option, it is presently unclear where a pocket track might be located. One conceivably could be sited to the east of the Tacoma Art Museum, but the location is constricted. Regardless, the unappealing nature of this alignment alternative does not warrant any further investigation at this time.

Any of the four CTLE alignments would directly serve Downtown Tacoma and properly interface with the local transit system, if not at Union Station then at City Center Station via the tunnel alignments. As Pierce Transit advances plans to redirect bus services toward Tacoma Dome Station, mandating transfers there at the expense of quality services to the urban core of the city, the CTLE promises to restore the proper dominance of Central Tacoma. This is the logical path forward for the South Sound and the Link spine, and the first step to ensuring its realization is securing a TDLE Puyallup Avenue alignment.

Central Tacoma Link Extension (CTLE) Alternative Alignments Map

ArcGIS Interactive Map, detailing the CTLE alternative alignments on a viewer-friendly map.

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21 Replies to “Alternative Link Alignments Into Downtown Tacoma: A Mapped Review”

  1. I think it’s great that you are motivated to write this. I agree that Tacoma Done is the wrong place to end the line (even though it’s a great place for a station generally because it connects to Sounder and Amtrak). I remain doubtful that going further will get traction unless the Tacoma City Council promotes the cause.

    Another option is to terminate Line T streetcars near City Hall or Art Museum or Union Station and rebuild/ convert the rest of the Line T tracks from there to Tacoma Dome for Line 1 trains. Of course, that requires relocating the maintenance facility to a new site as well as add more track and converting the power supply and lengthening the Union Station Line T platforms. The single track segment space would provide enough room for aerial piers to support two elevated tracks that would end just past the new end station. It’s not easy or cheap — but it would seem much cheaper than adding two new tracks parallel to Line T but not removing those Line T tracks..

    I also wonder if the way overbuilt 705 could be given a diet to allow for Link tracks to be added in that part of the corridor.

    1. I don’t think anyone views Tacoma Dome as a good place to permanently terminate Link; it’s a logical temporary terminus, like Northgate, but not permanent. The only dispute is whether the line should go west or north after leaving Tacoma Dome.

      Even if Link displaces/reuses the streetcar, I don’t think the streetcar OMF needs to be relocated. It should be much cheaper to either allow for the streetcar to run on the Link rails to get to/from the OMF, by either modifying the existing streetcars or buying new ones. Or, just cancel the streetcar before rebuilding the OMF.

      1. You would not need to modify the streetcars to run on Link for maintenance uses. The two areas of incompatibility are the streetcars being about 10 or so inches narrower, so they can’t serve Link platforms, and the overhead line voltage. There is a *lot* of slop in light rail overhead line voltage, and it should not be that difficult to arrive at a happy medium for such a short distance.

      2. Yeah, or perhaps just modify the Streetcars to allow them to run “off wire” on the Link rails when shuttling between the streetcar stations and the streetcar OMF, simillar to the new trolley buses? Basically, I’m saying don’t worry about the OMF location this early in planning.

      3. It would seem to save money to keep using the current OMF and that’s great! However, that savings might be negligible if expensive tracks have to be built to connect it to a different track. I guess it could be possible to merge the Line 1 and Line T tracks near Tacoma Dome. These kinds of details is one reason why a concept technical study is needed.

      4. I think there’s quite a bit to be lost in using the existing OMF. A new Link facility will be built in the area. Maintain the cars there and sell off the real estate for the old facility.

        Consolidation in this case could save a fair amount of money.

        By the time Link gets to Tacoma Dime, it will be time to replace the T Link cars anyway, and it would then be possible to either order cars with 1,500v static converters (the device that takes the overhead voltage and makes the highly variable voltage useful to the car) or replace the existing converters, or settle on a more carefully controlled voltage.

        (Link is 1,500 volts, but probably varies from the 800 range up to the 2,000 range. The static converters on the streetcars, at minimum, are specified for input voltages from 540v up to 900 or so. MAX is supposedly 750v but TriMet runs many of the substations in the 900v range as it gives more energy efficient performance.)

        The cars are a different design but it’s really no different than maintaining several different types of bus in the same garage.

      5. The OMF-south is most likely to be in King County, near the south Federal Way station, which would entail deadheading but perhaps not prohibitively. I would imagine the streetcar OMF will remain in use unless the streetcar is abandoned (like the Seattle waterfront OMF).

        But generally I agree with Glenn. By the time CTLE would begin construction, presumably a full decade after TDLE opens given the current absence of funding or preliminary engineering studying, the streetcar vehicles are probably at the end of their useful life and the easiest solution may very well be to convert the streetcar electric systems to be compatible with light rail.

        Personally, I find the idea of running CTLE at-grade and simply expanding the existing streetcar stations to handle 4-car Link trains very intriguing as it would presumably be a very low cost expansion, but I would expect such a project to also entail abandoning the streetcar as the remaining T-Link alignment is of little use. If, however, CTLE is elevated or underground through downtown, it’s very plausible that the streetcar could continue to run in parallel.

  2. Thanks for the article. The four issues are the same issues for other cities and lines:

    1. Costs, especially for tunnelling. That basically is the end of the discussion. The subarea just does not have the money to tunnel, or really for elevated lines, or really to continue Link to downtown Tacoma. I suppose Tacoma or Pierce Co. could support a HB1304 type levy to supplement ST taxes, but its odds of passage are very low. Right now I am not sure Pierce Transit even has adequate funding for operations, let alone a tunnel for Link, and I doubt Pierce Co. would pass a Pierce Co. transit levy right now even for buses.

    2. Cities’ reluctance to have surface lines and stations (or elevated lines) in their prime commercial cores. This is true for Seattle, Bellevue, Kirkland, Issaquah and Tacoma (and brings up the ghost of the monorail along 2nd Ave.). (After all, Seattle neighborhoods like Capitol Hill, UW, Roosevelt and Northgate insisted on tunnels and underground stations).

    They don’t see rail or transit as the number one, two or three key components to their commercial cores. I think DSTT2 will be a good template, as will Ballard’s and West Seattle’s demands for underground stations and lines in WSBLE, which I don’t think are affordable even with the realignment, but everyone will object to surface rail in the heart of the commercial core or in their neighborhoods.

    3. For Tacoma it has already built the T-Line.

    4. The risks of tunnelling. No one can really tell a subarea what a tunnel will cost, whether cut and cover or deep bore. I wouldn’t be reluctant to rely on ST cost estimating if I were the subarea. The Pierce Co. subarea has very little margin for error, and has already discussed exiting from ST. I wouldn’t want to be the local politician in Pierce Co. to own tunnelling.

    The other issue I think Bernie has pointed out is who will ride Link to downtown Tacoma, and where will they be coming from? Tacoma sees the T-Line as intra-Tacoma transit, and Link as transit to and from Tacoma from the north. Does Tacoma need workers from the north to feed its downtown?

    Just who will be the folks on Link taking it to downtown Tacoma, and how many, with so much free parking. I doubt from Seattle or Bellevue, or anywhere north of Seattle. How many downtown Tacoma workers are there coming from Federal Way, Kent, Burien, Auburn, or even Angle Lake? When East Link was first proposed the idea was to connect downtown Bellevue to downtown Seattle, and look at how that has turned out.

    So I don’t know. Bernie makes a compelling case for Link serving the Tacoma Dome because of the huge amount of free parking, cost, and the number of different transit modes serving it, in a pretty rural county with declining feeder bus service, and no rail to the south.

    I suppose if money were no object Link would run underground to downtown Tacoma, and have several stops, (think Seattle Subway), but even Bellevue did not get tunnelling to run East Link under Bellevue Way, and Seattle may be faced with the concept of DSTT2 running on the surface, which it will fight tooth and nail despite being a very pro-transit and progressive city.

    In many ways, the Tacoma Dome is not unlike 112th and S. Bellevue if the money is not there for tunnelling, the business interests will object to an elevate line in the prime commercial core, but does have the benefit of a huge park and ride that serves those not going to downtown Tacoma, like Seattle and the airport, and many modes of other transit.

      1. Daniel, I generally agree with your comments.

        Tunneling does introduce risks into the equation, there is no doubt. That is why my first proposal was a surface alignment with its obvious drawbacks. However, as far as tunneling in an urban area goes, it could not be more straightforward than the options presented within the ArcGIS review map. A deep bore tunnel is simply not required. With thorough survey of underground utilities, trenching and utility relocation here could be done swiftly and inexpensively compared to similar projects in more densely developed cities. Tacoma is “fortunate” in that regard; it long ago demolished the neighborhoods in the right-of-way under the guise of urban renewal.

        With regards to cost, it would certainly be an escalation; however, those costs should be evaluated against the $1.1-billion dollar mall extension (in 2015-dollars) that would presumably be completed under an ST4. I find that route frivolous and more technically challenged than a Pacific Avenue tunnel, and yet it somehow has secured a study and is effectively programmed as the next Link extension beyond Tacoma Dome. It is preposterous to me that we would spend $1.5-billion (or more) to get Link trains to the mall because of the promise or mirage of “growth”, and yet that same potential cannot be afforded to the city center of Tacoma. There would also be the added benefit of centralizing the regional transit system in Downtown, just as the alternative alignments review shows well.

        My argument is that if we cannot deliver trains to Downtown through the TDLE now, at least construct a Tacoma Dome Station on Puyallup Avenue that allows us to entertain the prospect in the future. We don’t even have that.

      2. Daniel, I just did this back-of-the-napkin math for the CTLE on my blog:

        A rudimentary evaluation of the costs for any of these CTLE alternative alignments should be compared against the $1.1-billion dollar Tacoma Mall extension (in 2015-dollars) that would presumably be completed under an ST4 program. For this cursory review, the Aerial & Tunnel Hybrid alignment above, with a terminal station within the bounds of 923 Commerce Street, will be held as the preferred alternative to the original surface proposal—which it deserves to be based on the merits. As is expected, even with tunneling segments, the CTLE extension is far less expensive than a suburban mall extension. There would also be the added benefit of centralizing the regional transit system in Downtown, with all the positive qualities such an urban core hub would entail.

        Holding Federal Way Link Extension costs per mile for largely elevated rail infrastructure, and using rough estimates for the cost of cut-and-cover tunneling, we get the following breakdown between an aerial and tunnel CTLE and the Tacoma Mall Extension within a hypothetical ST4 initiative in today’s dollars:


        CTLE: 0.43 miles

        Tacoma Mall: Some required; unclear length


        CTLE: 0.88 miles

        Tacoma Mall: Some required; unclear length


        Federal Way Link Extension cost per mile (overall): $400,000,000 per mile

        Cut-and-cover tunneling cost per mile (estimate): $245,000,000 per mile

        Station construction at 923 Commerce Street: $150,000,000 (potentially offset through sale of excess real estate)


        CTLE: 1.31 miles

        Tacoma Mall: 3.55 miles


        CTLE: $610-million (employing a very conservative estimation)

        Tacoma Mall: $1.2-billion (but consider the success of recent ST cost estimates)

      3. One more critical note: holding today’s Federal Way Link Extension costs for the mall extension, which is a dramatically less complex project to execute than a difficult mall extension, the costs would be $1.42-billion minimum. And that is an almost certain cost underestimation.

  3. I think the mostly areal alignment is your best bet. There’s more than enough room for it above the BNSF tracks, and there are a couple sections of disused road and railroad that could be used in the places where there isn’t space. Crescent Yard just north of Tacoma is too small for anything the BNSF is doing now, and on the wrong side of the main line today. It could serve as a good home for maintenance and end of line storage. This yard is slightly northwest of the McMenamin’s Elks Lodge.

    As long as the line is kept below or same height as I-705, the visual impacts should be minimal.

    Keep in mind the approach tracks to the old Amtrak station are no longer needed, so the BNSF should have more space available than what first glance indicates. Should be possible to rearrange things under the Bridge of Glass sufficiently so nothing needs to be done to it.

  4. I keep coming back to the 705 property. Could a cut-and-cover tunnel alignment work using it? I don’t have enough info to guess at its feasibility.

    What’s basically needed next is probably an extension study. I see three parts:

    1. A one-station extension into Downtown Tacoma.
    2. A four-station extension into Downtown Tacoma, a transfer station near MLK for Line T (near St Joseph’s), a possible station near Sprague then an end station in Tacoma Mall area.
    3. An ultimate line that goes further to SR 512 (ending in Lakewood or Parkland).

    Only with early concept studies can an effective project emerge. So many times I see too much belief that station locations are fixed in stone too early and then the region finds that it’s spending billions just to make the connection. The irony here is that no one pursued going further than Tacoma Dome because that was the end station dropped into the studies listed in ST2 in 2008.

    1. I would start with a 1 station extension to Pacific, to allow for a better connection to Pacific BRT, before exploring branching lines to either downtown, the Mall, or TCC.

  5. Why are all your alignments so far east? That seems to really hinder the walkshed of the station … the Tacoma Central station wastes the majority of its walkshed.

    I can see reusing the 705 footprint, if that becomes politically possible, or reusing the Streetcar ROW if that is technically possible, but otherwise wouldn’t it be better to run Link a bit west of the streetcar to maximize the impact of each station?

    For example, I would propose an alignment that first go due west and has a station over Pacific (for strong transfer to Route 1/Pacific BRT)*, and then turns north, running up C Street or perhaps that old rail ROW west of Hood Street. I would then run Link straight up Market elevated, or perhaps run straight through UWT and then elevated up Commerce if there’s a desire to put Link over the current bus hub. But a station over Market

    With the incline, it may even be possible to be elevated Pacfic and perhaps at UWT and then transition to at grade along Market (or another road), as an at-grade station in downtown would be best of station access. There’s little value in elevated/tunnel operations in downtown if that is going to be the permanent terminus (aka a Tram-train). The higher speeds of grade-separation is only valuable for through-riders (aka a Stanbahn), of which there will be none in your CTLE proposal.

    *could include in a junction west of the Pacific station to also allow for extension to Tacoma Mall and/or TCC.

    1. AJ, are you reviewing the new alternative alignments? The surface proposal CTLE does site a station at Fireman’s Park as that is the only area to reasonably accommodate a 4-car train. Also, Tacoma rests on a bluff, so practically any station will have an impacted walkshed. It is what it is. Regardless, the walkshed there is infinitely superior than anything at Tacoma Dome Station, which curiously never gets hit with this critique. Central Tacoma Station is an urban core facility, even if it is peripheral to its absolute center.

      In any case, the alternative alignments that are the subject of this post provide a tunnel to 9th and Commerce that interlaces with the existing transit center there, without question in the heart of Downtown. There cannot be a finer Downtown station than what is represented as City Center Station in the plans. The goal of the alternatives review was to secure another approach to Downtown that, one, produces a better station location than Central Tacoma Station and, two, which produces an alignment that does not impact the
      existing streetcar system.

      I happily challenge anyone to find a superior Downtown approach and rail station than the easterly approach along I-705 to a City Center Station at 9th and Commerce.

      1. That’s my point – since the city is on a bluff, the station should be a 5 minute walk west of the bluff to maximize the station walkshed. This is why the Seattle DSTT runs up 3rd and not 1st or 5th. In particular if you are proposing a tunneled approach, the stations should be several blocks west.

        Tacoma Dome Station is sited to serve the transit center & Amtrak station, which is why the walkshed critique is less relevant.

      2. I’d suggest the critique is just as relevant for Tacoma Dome Station, and I find it mind boggling that it is glossed over by the public.

        In any case, sure, if Sound Transit can deliver the deep bore tunnels and stations that you are describing here, excellent. I am all for it. But I doubt feasible alignments exist and, if any do, their cost is so prohibitive and their execution so complex that they do not pencil out.

        The subject tunnel proposals affordably deliver trains to UWT and the Downtown transit center that undergirds the entire regional bus transit system. I think visions of Market Street miss the mark, but that should be for Sound Transit to tell us through comprehensive alignment alternatives analyses.

      3. Then move the bus transit center? Don’t anchor a multi-billion dollar alignment to a location than can be moved cheaply. The bus network can respond to the Link station alignment.

        Once Tacoma Dome Link opens, I would expect the Commerce St will become less of a transit center and more like Seattle 3rd Ave, because PT will have a stronger reason to have routes end at the Dome rather than at the downtown TC. PT should have a busway from downtown to the Dome, creating <5 minute frequency between Link and downtown by overlaying routes. Only when that busway struggles to serve peak demand is CTLE needed. The existing Commerce TC design makes sense for a city with a much less robust bus network than Tacoma will have in the future.

        It may very well be that Commerce is the best alignment. But if you are going to crayon some possible alignment (an excellence use of Page 2!), I was just perplexed you didn't have some more western options, in particular missing the connection at Pacific by having the alignment cross Pacific east/west before turning north.

      4. Also, I don’t see how Tacoma Dome station’s limitations are relevant to CTLE? That’s like pointing out that UW Husky Stadium or S Bellevue station are mediocre and therefore Link should serve U District and Bellevue TC. U District and Bellevue should be served by Link regardless of the quality of immediately preceding stations. Tacoma downtown station’s justification should similarly stand alone.

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