Base Link light-rail extension on ridership, not politics

March 13, 2013 

After watching Seattle add one streetcar line after another connecting its neighborhoods, it is exciting to see the City of Tacoma finally take steps to extend Tacoma’s 1.5-mile Link light rail. However, we should be diligent to make sure that Tacoma’s extension is based on best practices rather than politics or other collateral interests.

The benefit of a streetcar network is its high reliability and smooth ride, its broad appeal to a wide spectrum of users, and its demonstrated ability to help create more walkable and vibrant neighborhoods.

In order to maximize ridership and the success of the Link extension, the new route should be designed to connect as many people possible while using the least amount of track. Hence, if there is any logic behind the design of the Link extension, the first new route would be to the Stadium District, which has the highest density neighborhood in the city and would require only a mile of additional track.

Similarly, the next neighborhood connected should be the one reaching the most people relative to the amount of rail line required.

The Link extension will only be considered successful if it results in a high ridership. The City of Tacoma will certainly not be successful in approaching voters for more funds for additional Link extensions if there are few passengers on the new route.

Further, just because arbitrary decisions were made designing the current Link route, we should not blindly move forward on an arbitrary route. The new route extension should branch off north of downtown and use the Market Street corridor through the University of Washington Tacoma, as this has far more development potential for density.

Finally, Sound Transit and residents of Tacoma should reject any effort to try to run the Link up to Sea-Tac. Connecting Tacoma’s neighborhoods is the only possible option that would benefit the City of Destiny. Running the line north would do nothing to enhance the vibrancy of Tacoma’s neighborhoods and only make the city a place to travel through as quickly as possible.

Tacoma should also reject the option of making the Link merely a bus line or Bus Rapid Transit (BRT). Ridership on BRT systems is far smaller and less diverse than a streetcar system and has far less prestige. BRT would also require all passengers to exit the existing Link system and board a bus.

Cities such as Portland and Seattle have never tried to use buses in place of their light-rail network. Tacomans should reject any such proposal and refuse to be shortchanged as well.

Tacoma residents should expect that many people will attempt to have the Link extension in their district, regardless of how circuitous the route or whether the numbers support it, in hopes that development and jobs will arrive in their neighborhood. Although it may be politically expedient to comply with the loudest voices, such an approach will not build a vibrant and cost-efficient transit system.

Tacoma will benefit greatly from a Link extension in the city so long as best practices carry the day rather that politics.

Morgan Alexander, the owner of Amocat Cafe and Tacoma Brewing Co., is the president of Tacoma Streetcar, which he founded in 2000. Erik Bjornson is an attorney in downtown Tacoma who often writes on downtown issues.

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