Thoughts on the Central Tacoma Link Extension (CTLE) Plans

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October 28, 2021 by seradt

The result was already baked in. In the Spring of 2019, I, along with many other Tacomans, participated in the Tacoma Dome Link Extension (TDLE) open house that sought to inform the public of, and seek comments about, the alignments being investigated by Sound Transit for the project (see here, here & here). Visitors poured over the plans and scratched notes over the colored lines, indicating their favorites or making known their critiques. I did the same, remarking on the value of some alignments and rejecting those that I found costly or frivolous. What I did not do, and what I strongly suspect most others did not do, was ask the question as to why Link light rail was stopping well short of the center of the city.

With alignments presented to us by experts amidst discussions of tying the region together at Tacoma Dome Station, which made some level of sense, who would think to challenge the project beyond what was being asked of us by Sound Transit? Who would think to propose an extension that reevaluates the exclusive role of the downtown streetcar? Presumably, no one did make such comments, and the public likely declared preferences that reinforced Sound Transit’s decision to eliminate the one route that could actually serve the city: Puyallup Avenue. It is of little doubt that the public would have provided dramatically different feedback if it had known Downtown service was on the chopping block, or that it could somehow even be served at all. That is the crux of the problem: how is the public to know what they want or need from a transportation megaproject when sensible proposals—like a once-in-a-century multi-billion dollar rail line going to where the people live and work—are not shown to them?

The TDLE is a brilliant example of sunken cost fallacy, where Sound Transit and the City of Tacoma have doubled-down on a flawed corridor only because it was long ago established as planning doctrine. With the streetcar tracks already laid through Downtown—the peanuts thrown to Tacoma by Sound Move as tunnels were bored under Seattle—the concept of another rail line serving the city was never seriously explored. Instead of separate and complementary rail services for Tacoma, being as they are literally different systems that fulfill different needs within the transit hierarchy, the plan endorsed by our professionals will kick passengers off Link and force a streetcar transfer to actually reach Tacoma. Modal separation is supreme. The threat of “duplication” has more instructive value than that of regional connectivity and integration. This is an ongoing rail planning failure with no correction in sight. Opening day is over ten years away.

The absence of an open house Downtown alignment seems to be more institutional inertia than misrepresentation, but two review papers published by Sound Transit should bring pause: the first detailing new Link services into Downtown, and the second one delivering Link to the Tacoma Mall.

For the first paper, instead of considering new surface alignments like the one I propose with the CTLE, and without any consideration for an aerial or tunneled alternative in Downtown, Sound Transit instead explored Link trains overrunning the existing streetcar line. This sandbagging of a study effectively ruled out such a proposal, as major physical modifications and disruptions would be required to accommodate Link trains across the entire line. It would be an operational curiosity through Commerce Street and likely imperil the streetcar line just as visions of its extension gained appeal. It was a nonstarter presented as the only pathway for getting Link into Tacoma. This was never the case.

The 2005 study influenced my CTLE design. It neither ruled out Link integration with the streetcar nor, more broadly, Link services to Downtown. It simply affirmed that the two systems have different technical requirements that demand special attention in the planning phase. The CTLE overcomes each of the identified obstacles through brief but critical integration at Union Station, and system separation thereafter. And, of course, there exist undiscovered alignment alternatives into Downtown beyond the CTLE that does not integrate with the streetcar whatsoever. Sound Transit has not reviewed them, and I do not believe the agency has been requested to do so by any board member to date.

For the second paper, Sound Transit was apparently requested by Pierce County sub-area representatives to skip the urban heart of the South Sound and instead study a route to the suburban Tacoma Mall, a most fascinating example of missing the forest for the trees. This is the local equivalent of mandating a SODO rail transfer for travel into Downtown Seattle, while the mainline bypasses to Northgate. Even when overlooking the truth that Northgate will forever be a better station than Tacoma Mall for a variety of structural reasons, the entire mall service concept is ludicrous.

Estimated in 2015-dollars that a mall extension would cost up to $1.1 billion, we know Sound Transit estimates have faired poorly since. The routing scoped by Sound Transit would almost certainly be far more expensive in today’s dollars, let alone well into the future. Consider the Herculean task of getting trains to the mall: first, the Link aerial guideway vaulting above East 25th Street would need to swerve onto some of the few undeveloped parcels of the Dome District (goodbye TOD), dive to near surface level under the interstate, then somehow navigate back onto an aerial guideway to cross Pacific Avenue. From there, it must travel on a significant grade atop a viaduct whose foundations rest along busy roadways and an active rail line, somehow obtain essential clearances from other elevated roadways, and ultimately crest the hill. Then the line somehow travels under the various multi-level roadways of State Route 16, gains yet more elevation to access the plateau on which the mall rests, and terminates at a station somewhere within the highly developed suburb—all while maintaining the minimum infrastructure requirements of Link light rail.

That is an enormous amount of effort, cost, energy and engineering to serve a mall, even if the place may host some residential towers in the future. Regardless, the planning calculus is askew when the hypothetical “development options” of a modest suburban mall is somehow deemed more worthwhile to serve than an established urban core like Central Tacoma. Yet that is precisely what has occurred with the TDLE. Sound Transit documents explicitly malign the Puyallup Avenue alternative because it prevents the only available pathways up the hill to the Tacoma Mall (Pg. 2, Pg. 22, & Pg. 39)—and even those supposed pathways are never clearly articulated. It bears repeating: the frivolous billion-plus-dollar fantasy of Link trains to the mall was a key factor in the elimination of the Puyallup Avenue alignment, in addition to the fact that its one block offset from East 25th Street apparently renders it “too far” from the Dome District center, which is itself a nebulous concept. It is not being considered within the larger DEIS review currently underway.

The CTLE article published by this blog and in The Urbanist allowed the public to see a dynamic alternative alignment, one that should have been shown at the 2019 TDLE open house that I attended. The planning professionals should have been presenting it. The plan is neither the only alignment available or necessarily the best, but it represents a thoroughly researched and feasible path forward for Link trains to serve the city center. The reaction was almost universally positive, and many people were stricken with an “Ah ha!” moment upon reviewing the GIS plans. The expected criticism of an urban surface alignment was provided, as were the comments concerned with any Link integration with the streetcar; I welcome them. Nevertheless, the grand majority of commenters provided their endorsement of an exceedingly obvious rail terminus for the Link spine: Downtown Tacoma. As the group Seattle Subway declared in their comment on my article, Sound Transit needs to “work it out and find a route.” Time is running out.

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Additional CTLE Public Comment Notes

Tunneling: The plan was accused of proposing tunneling. The CTLE proposes no such thing and is explicitly an aerial alignment to Tacoma Dome Station and a surface alignment thereafter. Tunneling in the immediate vicinity of Tacoma Dome Station is a wasteful expenditure of money and energy considering the wide and unconstrained rights-of-way.

Curve Radius: This plan was accused of being unable to integrate with the streetcar because of sharp streetcar curves. While it is true that the East 25th and Pacific curve is too limited per Sound Transit Link minimum standards, CTLE explicitly proposes a Puyallup Avenue alignment both to avoid this curve and to simplify integration with the streetcar.

Puyallup Avenue Streetcar Couplet: This plan was accused of compromising the hypothetical Puyallup Avenue Streetcar Couplet (listed as the 10th “Project Element” from the top). While this is possibly true if the couplet required a dedicated lane—which it does not—the streetcar couplet is a proposal rooted in fantasy. Consider the math: with a single-track segment of 3,920-feet, a streetcar traveling at an average speed of 10mph would pass through the section in 4 minutes and 30 seconds. Adding a generous additional 60-seconds to account for the intermediate stop, traversing this poorly considered single-track section still requires less than 6-minutes of time. Presuming a double-tracking of Tacoma Dome station for storage capacity, are 5.5-minute headways actually insufficient for a small streetcar line in a low-density and modestly sized city? Such quality headways should nullify any need for a couplet. Even the Hiroshima Electric Railway, or Hiroden, the busiest streetcar system of a rail-dependent Japan, operates on 10 to 15 minute intervals. It cannot be the operating assumption that Tacoma, whose finest bus line operates on 15-minute maximum headways (now 30), is going to operate a one-line, zero-branch streetcar on intervals that approach anything near 6-minutes. If it is, it should not be, especially if the cost of the couplet approaches the per mile cost of the Hilltop T Line Extension. Note, too, that headways can be further reduced if the intermediary station is also double-tracked, establishing a streetcar operation that mimics that of Amsterdam, whose trams ply single-track sections hundreds of times each day without issue. Additionally, such imaginary headways are likely the result of intense, imaginary traffic to Tacoma Dome Station for an event, or to connect to inexplicably busy Link trains. CTLE would provide redundancy and relief to the streetcar on this tiny corridor, further neutralizing the need for a non-starter couplet. The couplet should disappear from our collective rail planning focus, and it should never be allowed to ruin a good project like the CTLE. Indeed, any couplet budget should be dissolved into the down payment for a Downtown extension.

Puyallup River Crossing: This plan was accused of failing to review existing alignment scoping efforts. A valid critique was posted against the CTLE related to its preferred river crossing over the Puyallup River. Scoping documents explicitly declare that the identical Sound Transit alignment ET-1B was “removed due to a sub-alignment that impacts an area of cultural significance to the Puyallup Tribe adjacent to the Puyallup River” (Pg. 53). However, it is not particularly clear how the tribe was engaged related to the prospective alignment, if the engagement was framed in a manner that identified its value to a Downtown Tacoma alignment, or if a clear-span bridge or alternative structure could have preserved the culturally significant area and allowed it to proceed. Regardless, as the revised G.I.S. plans show, the elimination of ET-1B does not preclude a city center extension. The Tribe is an essential partner in the success of the any rail line through the Nation, and their consultation and acceptance of any alignment is mandatory. Worthy of note: the parcels that would have hosted ET-1B are in an impacted right-of-way that is also an abandoned railroad alignment, and further appear to be encumbered by a permanent City of Tacoma public utility easement (AFN 201711090313).

Park Destruction: This plan was accused of destroying Fireman’s Park. While the park is indeed impacted by Central Tacoma Station, it is left largely undisturbed as the station envelope rests predominantly in the paved street. This is intentional, and it renders the charge misleading. Worthy of note, too, is that multiple other station configurations exist that can preserve a greater portion of the park, or incorporate the park into the design of the station.

Streetcar Integration: This plan was accused of failing to consider the complexities of Link and streetcar integration. This is untrue. The T Line and Link light rail systems operate very similar equipment over very similar infrastructure that share many of the same technical requirements. Per their vehicle manufacturers (see here & here), both systems even share the same floor elevation. However, the key difference is their DC voltages, which are overcome in a straightforward manner as noted within the original blog piece and its linked sources. Instead, the real hurdle of integration is realigning Pacific Avenue near Union Station for two tracks, and a larger platform to meet Sound Transit Link minimum standards. This is not a unique challenge, though, as such civil works are the primary hurdle for any street-running railroad.

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2 thoughts on “Thoughts on the Central Tacoma Link Extension (CTLE) Plans

  1. […] 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. […]

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  2. […] 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 […]

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