Fife, Pedestrian Paradise?

Nice place for a stroll. Credit: Google

At the last Sound Transit Board meeting, on April 25, WSDOT head and Sound Transit Board member Roger Millar caught my attention when he mentioned the potential of East Tacoma or Fife stations as something other than freeway-limited park and ride stops.

Millar proposed making the East Tacoma station the end of a bike trail connecting Link to Puyallup—and the raised the possibility of transforming the area into a walking and biking hub. Millar even suggested that funds or planning resources from the Gateway Project, a highway expansion megaproject, might be available to build the trail.

Some background: the walksheds of the potential Fife and East Tacoma sites are mainly industrial or low-rise commercial, though there are residential areas that are a bikeable distance away. Several major highways intersect with I-5 in the area, and the Port of Tacoma’s truck freight enters and exits the highway system there. So, as anyone who’s traveled on I-5 knows, Fife and East Tacoma are constantly congested already. (And the widening probably won’t make a big difference.) In short, it’s not the most pedestrian- or bike-friendly area. (Frank covered the Level 2 Tacoma Dome extension options in more detail when they were released in April.)

Hearing the head of WSDOT—an agency that is heavily focused on building and maintaining highways—propose an urbanist-flavored mobility solution was very encouraging.

“The distance from the City of Puyallup to Fife—it’s five, six miles—which, on a bicycle, particularly on flat terrain like that is nothing. And the opportunity to create a whole new travelshed is something that we’re excited about. …We are looking at alignments that might work as part of our Gateway Project,” Millar said, citing the work of Pierce County elected officials for bringing the issue to his attention. “At the very least, maybe we could minimize the number of park and ride spaces we need to have for people coming in from Puyallup, because they can get on their bikes and ride.”

Sound Transit’s project lead, Curvie Hawkins, said the agency is open to the idea, but was understandably cautious about committing to anything.

“We have a river we have to get over between Fife and East Tacoma,” Hawkins said. “So we have thought about ways to incorporate multiple modes in our design, and [be] able to make that connection work. I can’t tell you we’re going to build a multimodal bridge at this time, but to respond to your question, we’re thinking about it.”

Millar (who has a strong transit background) pressed Hawkins further, raising the possibility of reimagining the Tacoma and Fife station areas as walkable, bikeable urban villages.

“That’s good news, and I’m not hoping for the Tilikum Crossing—but, y’know, that wouldn’t be bad—over the [Puyallup] River there,” Millar said. “But the other direction, we need to think about active transportation accesses from those stations to the Port of Tacoma. Is there conversation going on about bicycle and walking connections, transit shuttle connections, those kinds of things? …I have this vision of longshoremen on scooters.”

Hawkins again hedged, saying that planning was early, but Sound Transit is working closely with the Port of Tacoma and Pierce Transit.

After the exchange, Fife Mayor and Board member Kim Roscoe added her support for Millar’s multimodal ambitions.

“I really appreciate you pulling this up to top of mind for us,” Roscoe said, turning to Millar. “I share the strong sentiment on keeping a focus on bike and pedestrian access.”

In earlier iterations of Link planning, particularly in suburban and industrial areas like the stations in question, multimodal access has seemed like an afterthought. It’s refreshing to see leaders outside of Seattle working to leverage Link as a catalyst for green, human-scale transportation.