Boe’s light rail option deserves a (quick) look

The News TribuneMarch 27, 2013 

The Tacoma City Council has complicated an already complex decision on light rail in Tacoma. That’s OK – as long as it doesn’t also derail the decision.

Some background:

The regional transit package Puget Sound voters approved in 2008 didn’t give Pierce County a rail connection to Sea-Tac Airport and beyond. But the county did get a consolation prize: a promise to expand Tacoma Link, the small electric rail line that already runs from the Tacoma Dome north through downtown Tacoma.

The Sound Transit board is now poised to make good on that promise. After years of analysis that winnowed dozens of possible routes, the agency’s staff has come up with a short list of well-vetted expansions.

One would take the existing line up from the Theater District through the Stadium District, then south down the length of the Hilltop on or near Martin Luther King Way. Call that the Hilltop Option.

Another would bypass the Hilltop and proceed west on or near Sixth Avenue to Union Avenue.

Yet another would head in the opposite direction – east to Portland Avenue, then follow that corridor to 72nd. Call that the Eastside Option.

Sound Transit wanted to make a choice in April. But the City Council, at the urging of Council member David Boe, is now pushing the agency to consider an altogether new option. Boe calls it the “hybrid.”

It’s ambitious. Like one of the previous Hilltop options, it looks at a corridor that runs along the gentle slope of a mid-hill ascent starting from a southern connection to the Link and heading north to Sixth Avenue. It would also run tracks to the east, to reach the Lower Portland Mixed-Use Center.

The appeal is obvious: Lots more neighborhoods connected to light rail. In terms of people served, it’s far better than anything else on the table.

But the downside is also obvious: It looks to be prohibitively expensive. Sound Transit’s budget for the expansion is $150 million, and it’s not even clear where all of that is going to come from. It’s hard to see how $150 million would come remotely close to circling the Hilltop with tracks and extending more tracks deep into the Eastside.

Still, it’s worth a look, if only out of respect for the City Council. Boe argues that Sound Transit has all the data necessary to quickly spit out an analysis of his hybrid plan. If it can happen fast, why not?

The pitfall that must be avoided is serious delay. Years have already been invested in planning the Tacoma Link extension, and everyone in the city has long since been invited to participate in the corridor decision.

It would be wonderful to discover that Boe’s eleventh-hour plan is somehow affordable. One way or the other, though, the corridor decision should be made this spring.

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