Tonight’s meeting of the Tacoma City Council was a lengthy session that drew a large crowd seeking to make their voices heard on a variety of pressing topics:
The Sound Transit commuter rail design. A proposed smoking ban in public parks. A resolution urging voters to approve statewide ballot Referendum 71.
The agenda was truly impressive, and after nearly three and a half hours of the meeting, I had to flee to make my print deadline. Even then, the meeting was still carrying on.
I’ll have a story in tomorrow’s newspaper focusing on the council’s actions on several city agreements with Sound Transit related to the proposed commuter rail link project through the Dome District. But, due to space constraints, the story had to be kept short for print. I’m including a longer web-version of what went on below.
The Tacoma City Council on Tuesday unanimously approved three procedural agreements with Sound Transit that will set the stage for a commuter rail construction project south of downtown.
The council’s actions had little to do with the architectural design for the planned Tacoma-to-Lakewood Sounder rail corridor through the city’s Dome District that has drawn controversy.
Still, council members made it clear they accept Sound Transit’s construction design as a solid compromise, and all agreed the plan needs to move forward.
“We did the best we could and it’s time to move on,” said Councilman Jake Fey, whose district includes the project site.
Councilwoman Marilyn Strickland added by forging ahead, the construction proposal will help bring “21st Century transportation” to south Tacoma and Lakewood, as well as create some 300 new construction jobs.
“I’m for fulfilling a promise to taxpayers,” added Strickland of the voter-approved commuter rail link.
But just as they did at a meeting two weeks ago, opponents to Sound Transit’s so-called “berm” construction method showed up to make their protests heard.
“I think the public has spoken en mass on this,” said John Trueman, former president of the Cross-District Association. “And, we don’t want the berm.”
Trueman was among only five opponents who spoke publicly against the agency’s commuter rail design, but many more were in the audience.
For the first time Tuesday, Sound Transit officials publicly presented conceptual renderings of what the agency’s design will look like. Chief executive officer Joni Earl gave the presentation, which described a design that blends construction methods and includes lighting, landscaping, street and pedestrian upgrades to the neighborhood around the proposed rail line.
The agreements adopted by the council Tuesday essentially set the ground rules for determining public rights-of-way and construction issues between Sound Transit and the city along the project area.
But the council also included several amendments, including a provision that gives the council say on aesthetics for a planned bridge over Pacific Avenue. Such options could include what color the structure will be and whether public artwork can be installed on bridge facades, Earl said.
“We can still do aesthetic changes and treatments, as long as we don’t impact the structural integrity” of the bridge design, Earl told the council.
Other amendments adopted by the council call for Sound Transit to improve a wildlife habitat corridor beneath the B-Street gulch area, and outlined future landscaping and maintenance contracts between the transit agency and the city to ensure areas along the proposed commuter rail route are maintained.
“What’s so easy to lose sight of is all the improvements” to the neighborhood made under the Sound Transit design, said Councilman Mike Lonergan.
“I don’t think we’re being taken to the cleaners at this point by Sound Transit,” he added.
Sound Transit’s design largely calls to build an earthen berm to elevate and extend tracks over Pacific Avenue near 25th Street, in a 1.4-mile project to connect the proposed D to M Street rail lines as part of the Sounder commuter link to Lakewood.
Opponents, including all of the city’s neighborhood councils, have criticized the so-called “berm” design they say would physically and visually divide the neighborhood and impede natural business growth. Most support a “post and beam” construction method they view as a less obtrusive alternative.
Some opponents have contended public officials have largely ignored citizens’ concerns, though council members on Tuesday flatly called such characterizations false.
For months, a grass roots effort headed by mayoral candidate Jim Merritt and Dome District president Keith Stone have sought to draft an alternative post-and-beam design to win public support and force Sound Transit to change its plans.
On Tuesday, before asking council members to again postpone their vote, Stone told the council that engineers working with his group now estimate that a post-and-beam design would cost $30 million less than Sound Transit’s construction plan.
“We’re still amazed that the council and Sound Transit are not listening to citizens,” Stone added.
Before the meeting, Stone told a reporter that if need be, his group is willing to take its fight to court and the Federal Transit Authority, which helps fund such projects.
Council members said the design of the route has been thoroughly vetted and changed in a series of public meetings. Changing course in designs now would only delay the $161 million voter-approved project further, they said. Sound Transit officials have added the agency’s design plan is now 100 percent complete and that any drastic changes could jeopardize up to $28 million of federal grant money for the project.
Mayor Bill Baarsma said that overall, the project has involved more changes based on citizen input than any other he has been involved in his 16 years an elected official.
“Huge, significant, radical changes have been made in this project all along the way,” Baarsma said.
In other council news Tuesday:
• The council voted 6 to 3 (Lonergan, Manthou and Anderson against) to prohibit smoking in public parks.
The city ordinance will make such public smoking a misdemeanor punishable by up to a $25 fine, though city officials have said police do not plan to actively enforce of the measure.
Supporters of the proposal said it is a way to protect seniors, children and others from the dangers of second-hand smoke. Connie Ladenburg noted her 11-year-old grandson has such severe asthma, he can’t enjoy parks when cigarette smoke is present.
Lonergan, who views the proposal as an infringement on rights, noted that such areas under the ban include parking lots at public parks, public fishing piers, Cheney Stadium and Meadow Park Golf Course.
• The council passed a resolution (by an 8 to 0 vote, with Lonergan abstaining) urging voters to approve Referendum 71, the ballot measure that asks citizens whether to retain the state’s domestic partnership law.
Lonergan abstained, saying he doesn’t believe the issue involves city business, and therefore, isn’t an appropriate issue for the council to take up.
In supporting the resolution, Councilwoman Julie Anderson countered that because many Tacoma citizens could be impacted by loss of benefits if the measure is rejected, the issue falls under the city’s purview.
• In an unusual move, the City Council allowed Councilman Rick Talbert to participate in the meeting and cast votes by telephone. Talbert, who was home sick with the Swine Flu, could be heard over a microphone patched to a telephone throughout the meeting.
But at one point, as city public works officials presented Sound Transit-related information to the council, Talbert’s call was lost. As the noise of a dial-tone buzzed through a microphone, Julie Anderson quipped to Public Works director Dick McKinley: “Really, your presentation is interesting.”