Critical Note: Additional alignment investigation for a Central Tacoma Link Extension has produced a preferred alternative that delivers trains into the Commerce Street Hub in an efficient and cost effective manner via cut-and-cover trenching. The alignment is detailed primarily here, and is elaborated upon here.For a response to initial comments and concerns to this post, please see the follow-up article here.
Consider the lunacy of the journey to be 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, 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. By far the most jobs-rich census tract in the South Sound, with 34,353 jobs per square mile, will not be served, nor will the urban university tract immediately to its south (see pages 4 through 6, Census Tract Nos. 061601 & 061602). Instead, it will terminate at a park-n-ride regional 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, include 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. 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 Dome District (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 DowntownTacoma, 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.
This proposal details a superior Link Light Rail alignment for direct rail service to Central Tacoma, the Central Tacoma Link Extension(CTLE). This surface alignment 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.
South 10th Street has been identified as the smartest location from which to begin the balloon loop track that underpins the CTLE proposal. It is sufficiently wide, is underutilized and not heavily trafficked by cars, and is reasonably close to Central Tacoma Station. While other streets could certainly host the balloon track, 10th Street’s close proximity to the downtown station avoids extensive additions to overall project mileage. The right-of-way of 10th Street between Pacific and ‘A’ Streets, featuring only a single track with two sharp curves, becomes constrained under this proposal—but not intolerably so. The proposed trackway does not parallel the right-of-way and instead does a broad sweep through it, securing as much clearance as possible around the existing sidewalk system, which would still need modest revisions at the two intersections. The track is to occupy the space of what would otherwise be a broad center turn lane. The unused portion of this “center lane” adjacent to the track can either host climate resilient bioswales, or pavement may be retained so that bike lines or parallel parking spots may be incorporated into the design, along with one travel lane in each direction. Alternative proposals, especially those that render the trackway parallel with the right-of-way, will either require a reduction in horizontal curvature that is in violation of Sound Transit minimum standards (Siemens allows for 82-feet, versus 100), a rebuilding of the staircase system of the modern 909 ‘A’ Street building—which obtained a minor right-of-way vacation for the stairs that restricts the curve toward Central Tacoma Station—or the condemnation and demolition of the building at 101 South 10th Street. This demolition has not been seriously explored, but could produce major benefits that are worthy of attention: a straightening of the trackway for simplified street design; a revision of the sidewalk infrastructure that better accommodates the rail line, and; the acquisition of an underutilized downtown property that could be redeveloped into affordable housing next to Central Tacoma Station. The 2021 assessed value for the property is only $1.53 million. By comparison, the cost of the Tacoma Dome Link Extension is currently pegged at $3.3 billion.
The option of extended track sharing with the streetcar was explored only to the new Old City Hall Station, but a slew of problems presented themselves that prove such a track-sharing arrangement undesirable. It would be unquestionably worse north of Old City Hall Station through to Hilltop as long as any streetcar services continued to exist along the corridor.
First, Link would directly mix with a greater portion of the streetcar traffic, and, even worse, general vehicular traffic as it leaves the modal-separated Pacific Avenue. This introduces operational problems that should be avoided on new Link alignments. Unless Link stopped at all streetcar stops, which would require extensive modifications to each station to meet Sound Transit minimum sizing standards for Link platforms, the varied operations of both Link and the streetcar become complicated, especially as streetcar service frequencies improve. The turnaround of a Link train is not the equivalent of a streetcar, and the space consideration is substantial and problematic in a constrained right-of-way. Any bunching of Link trains on Commerce Street would be a nightmare for the South Sound bus and rail transit network. Conceivably, any bunching of Link trains beyond Old City Hall Station would take place in modest residential streets, a rail design issue for which I lack a comparable example. The hypothetical addition of a pocket track at either Hilltop or Commerce Street would help to resolve bunching, especially if the track was sited in a rail “barn” out of the right-of-way, but this becomes a pretty unusual rail infrastructure.
Second, the streetcar network, for better or worse, already exists, and Link and the streetcar can and should coexist. The thinking behind this plan, as well as the thinking of Golden Age rail planners, is that interurban and streetcar services should directly connect with one another as they do with the CTLE, and yet be complimentary and separate services with distinct mobility goals. If for example, someone is at the stop labeled Central Tacoma in this plan and must travel to the Hilltop hospitals, they may walk the few blocks to Old City Hall Station and catch the streetcar. They may also catch a direct bus line up the hill, the future equivalent of a Rapid Ride G. Or they may take Link to Union Station, cross platform transfer, and then ride the streetcar uphill. A Hilltop to Downtown Tacoma / Seattle trip is even easier, with either a disembarking at Old City Hall, or a simple transfer to Link at Union Station. Et voila, we have a modest rail and bus network functioning as it should.
Third, the physical improvements would be substantial. Turn radii would need to be improved near Stadium High School and 6th / MLK, which would be prove damaging for these sensitive intersections. Additional curve improvements may be needed. Platforms would need to be either widened and extended for islands platforms, or consume valuable and limited street space for side platforms. The right-of-way widths substantially decrease as you depart Pacific Avenue, a road that is tight itself with two tracks, which would politically imperil the proposal and hamper the flow of vehicles along the route. Most damning to the larger track sharing idea is that the construction of the streetcar system is not even complete, and would almost immediately need to be substantially modified. The construction of the streetcar extension has proven to be a difficult and grinding project, and I doubt there is further appetite to get full Link trains up any portion of the hill. The street grid of Tacoma is also more “Victorian” than that of Seattle, and the longer blocks here ensure that all modes of transit fight for the same essential arterial, as opposed to simply traveling a parallel block. In Tacoma, that parallel block frequently does not exist.
One struggles to see how a city center rail line gets constructed that is less disruptive and costly than the one proposed here, or more effective at doing what is must: connecting the city and region.
Critics will question the value of this extension in its entirety, or perhaps only the value of the station presently labeled as Central Tacoma. Many will be perplexed by the location of Central Tacoma Station and its ostensibly limited pedestrian walkshed. All of these items have been considered by this proposal.
First, the real prize of this proposal is securing rail access to Union Station / UWT and its many transit connections via Puyallup Avenue, which allows for a Link Light Rail turn radius onto Pacific Avenue that exceeds Sound Transit minimum standards. This is because Puyallup Avenue was designed to accommodate a double-track railway, and Pacific Avenue hosted two tracks as well. Any Link alignment that utilizes East 25th Street kills such a city center extension because of the turn radius at 25th and Pacific.
Second, the Central Tacoma Station is only poorly sited if one thinks that King Street and Union Stations in Seattle are also poorly sited relative to its historic downtown (i.e., Pioneer Square). In other words, the charge is absolutely not true. Each of these stations have premier locations in the immediate walkshed of their level-terrain downtowns, and there are no finer station locations for this type of rail infrastructure due to the hills on one side and the coastline on the other. These are coastal cities, so the walkshed issue is a minor problem that our cities need to accept (and certainly did in the past). It is, ultimately, a non-issue.
Third, one needs to consider these plans in the context of railway operations. Terminating Link trains at UWT requires either a space-wasting pocket track or the blockage of the main line to reorient Link trains northbound to Seattle. This hinders both Link and streetcar operations in the most critical stop of the area rail network. Sending trains north along Pacific Avenue to Central Tacoma Station not only properly captures the economic center of the city of Tacoma, it places within immediate walkshed the Theater District and some of the city’s highest population densities. It provides for a second terminal track to host two trains at-once, and the return loop dramatically streamlines operations through the urban core of the city. It allows for a less disruptive single-track alignment in a sensitive area of Downtown.
This is classical and proven railway infrastructure design. How does one know for sure? The design proposed here is a modern refinement of the Puget Sound Electric Railway, otherwise known as the Seattle-Tacoma Interurban. This was a tried-and-true passenger railway designed by Golden Age railroad professionals that efficiently served Tacoma for decades—and which never should have been dismantled. The grid of the city where Central Tacoma Station is sited literally exists to host such railroad infrastructure as it physically developed around the looping interurban line. The historic maps better articulate this truth. Modern rail loops continue to be constructed and are serving the public effectively today.
Unless Tacoma was able to fund a tunneling effort somewhere downtown, or acquiesced to a complex aerial alignment into its core, rail services do not get much better than what has been proposed and precision-mapped here.
This approximately 1.85-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 (a rough estimate developed from present Hilltop Extension costs). 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 then bisecting city blocks toward and finally above East 26th Street (oreven Freighthouse Square itself). The deletion of East Tacoma Station, too, could further reduce costs, considering the limited transit oriented development potential, the fact that most area transit connections will occur via bus, and that buses will continue onto Tacoma Dome Station anyway—a bus facility only a few minutes of driving away. This is certainly not an essential rail station, but its inclusion remains an option for consideration.
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 avoid 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 CTLE could not be clearer. The benefits, altogether, lend the proposal more credibility than any major alignment deviation to serve a second-tier airport, and Tacoma will forever be more deserving of the rail connection effort now being misplaced on Alaska Junction.