A good choice for Tacoma Link light-rail extension

The News TribuneApril 28, 2013 

There wasn’t an obvious “best” among the options for extending Link light rail further into Tacoma. But the City Council has tentatively chosen a very good one: the “E-1 North Downtown Central Corridor.”

Now all the city needs is to formally vote for it, get approval for its recommendation from the Sound Transit board, win a $50 million federal grant and find another $50 million or so from some other unidentified source.

In other words, this proposed Link project – essentially a consolation prize for not getting a light rail extension from King County – has a lot of hurdles to overcome before it becomes reality. It hasn’t even completely won over the council members, some of whom prefer a route that would serve low-income East Side neighborhoods and provide service near an expanded Emerald Queen Casino.

The proposal that the council majority plans to recommend is a $133 million, 2.3-mile route from downtown to the Stadium District, west along Sixth Avenue and south along Martin Luther King Jr. Way to South 19th Street. It would extend the existing 1.6-mile line between the Dome District and its current terminus near South Ninth and Commerce streets in the Theater District.

The proponents of all the routes under consideration make good arguments. But the E-1 selection – the first or second choice of six of nine City Council members – is a defendable one. It would connect job centers downtown and the city’s “Medical Mile” of health-care facilities to densely populated neighborhoods – a built-in ridership base.

The route has the added benefit of providing an economic development boost to the Hilltop, a community that has worked hard to prime the pump for improvement and is starting to see results. Of the various routes the council and community looked at over months of study, this one seems to fulfill the most criteria set out by Sound Transit for consideration.

The disappointment of East Side residents that their preferred route wasn’t selected is understandable; their community could use the kind of boost light rail would provide. But it has disadvantages, most importantly its lower density. It doesn’t make sense to build something hoping that it will spur density when the proposed E1 route already has the density needed to support ridership.

That’s important because at some point – probably not too far in the future – Link will start charging customers, according to Sound Transit. Ridership numbers might not be too important when service is free, as it is now, but that’s not always going to be the case.

The more the Link can support itself, the less taxpayer subsidy it will need – and the more successful it will be.

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