Hold everything. Wait a minute. Not so fast.
Just as Sound Transit was set to end nine years of study by identifying a short-list of preferred routes for expanding Tacoma Link, City Manager T.C. Broadnax this week requested the regional transit authority to take more time to analyze a new “hybrid corridor” as a possible extension for the city’s transit system.
“While the City is eager to complete the alternatives analysis and select, at minimum, two corridors as preference, we recognize that the expansion of the Tacoma Link is a significant and important investment in our community,” Broadnax wrote to Sound Transit’s chief executive Joni Earl on Thursday.
“As a result, the City has resolved that extending the analysis phase is necessary and requests consideration of an additional option to the three corridors selected to date.”
The “additional option” Broadnax referred to is a so-called “hybrid corridor” for which the City Council directed him to seek further analysis. Study of the newly proposed route will push back a council presentation on recommendations by at least two weeks, and the Sound Transit board’s ultimate selection of Tacoma’s preferred expansion route by at least a month.
But earlier this week, several council members who seemed open to the idea for additional study indicated it’s not so much the timing – but making the right decision – that’s important.
“We’re kind of being told that you get one choice and one choice only and that may not be the best way to approach this,” Mayor Marilyn Strickland said Tuesday. “We want to talk about, how do we best build a spine that eventually in the long term will serve as many neighborhoods as possible, because that’s essentially what is ideal.”
Sound Transit spokeswoman Kimberly Reason said Friday it’s unclear yet how the additional analysis will affect the project timeline or whether more public input must be garnered about the hybrid route.
“We’re still trying to determine that,” Reason said. “The hybrid idea encompasses an area that already has been part of an exhaustive evaluation process, but the answer to your question really is, it’s too soon to say.”
With Strickland’s support, Councilman David Boe introduced the hybrid corridor via a hand-sketched rendering distributed during the council’s committee of the whole on Tuesday.
The proposal incorporates parts of two existing alternatives now under study: The so-called E2 North Downtown Central corridor — a C-shaped route that loops from roughly the University of Washington-Tacoma to the Hilltop and north along Martin Luther King Jr. Way before curling back through the Stadium District; and the C1 Eastside corridor — an upside down L-shaped route that extends east from the Dome District along roughly Puyallup Avenue, then south along Portland Avenue.
At a presentation to council initially set for April 2, Sound Transit staff was poised to present the three preferred corridors that emerged among six alternatives analyzed during an extensive public process. The preferred routes included the C1 Eastside, the B1 North End Central and E1 North Downtown Central routes. Estimated costs for a Link expansion along those routes ranged from a low of $119 million (C1) to $163 milllion (B1).
But, due to Broadnax’s request, that presentation has been pushed back at least two weeks.
In his letter, Broadnax asked Sound Transit to study a new hybrid route that “combines best connection points of the three corridors selected” to “measure against the goals and criteria of the project.”
The hybrid route would extend from “the vicinity of East 29th Street and Portland Avenue (a portion of the C1 corridor), west to the existing Link alignment along East 25th Street, northwest to the City’s designated Mixed-Use Center (MUC) along Martin Luther King Jr. Way and north along a portion of the E1 corridor terminating in the vicinity of 6th Avenue and Martin Luther King Jr. Way,” the letter states.
Noting city officials are “fully aware” the hybrid route is longer than the three recommended corridors, Broadnax said the city is “open to the terminus of this corridor being located in another location” other than 6th Avenue within the MLK Mixed Use Center. He suggested other potential terminus choices as South 19th and MLK Way, or South 11th and MLK Way.
While not going so far as to say the hybrid ultimately should be supported by the council, Boe and Strickland contended Tuesday it may provide a better “backbone” to a more comprehensive transit system that, when built out, could serve more of Tacoma’s neighborhoods.
To Boe, the hybrid corridor makes more sense than trying to tack a line on to Tacoma’s existing 1.6-mile light rail line, which extends from the Tacoma Dome to the Theater District. That line was meant to be a shuttle between downtown and the Dome District, Boe said, not as the building block of a mass transit system.
“Putting in a backbone of the system as future funding arises has much more potential to connect to lots of different neighborhoods versus just kind shooting off in one line only, which means future expansion is only really affordable to keep extending that one line,” Boe said Tuesday.
But the proposal has drawn criticism in Tacoma’s blogosphere, including a scathing “open letter” to the council that transit writer Chris Karnes posted on his Tacoma Tomorrow blog.
The “Council’s procrastination shouldn’t mean that you should be able to manufacture a crisis and have veto authority over conclusions built on all of the time, effort, and resources that have gone into studying Tacoma Link expansion,” Karnes wrote.
Voters approved an expansion of Tacoma Link as part of the Sound Transit 2 ballot measure in 2008. The expansion’s stated purpose was to improve mobility and access to the regional transit system by connecting the existing Tacoma Link with the city’s major employment, residential and activity centers.
Since then, several rounds of analysis have occurred, with the latest round focusing on six route alternatives conducted to satisfy requirements to compete for a $50 million “Small Starts” grant from the Federal Transit Authority.
Sound Transit plans to use the grant to match $50 million from local ST2 tax revenues, plus raise another $50 million from yet unspecified partners to cover the expansion’s estimated $150 million cost.
Not mentioned in Broadnax’s letter was another idea Boe pitched Tuesday: Implementing modern bus rapid transit technology to expand Tacoma’s system instead of extending out-dated light rail. The latest electric bus system would be cheaper, more efficient, eco-friendly and more readily expanded than light rail, Boe said. It also could utilize Tacoma’s hilly terrain to generate the necessary energy to move buses, he said.
“We have an ability to leapfrog to the next technology,” Councilman Marty Campbell said of the idea.
But not all members were satisfied with the eleventh-hour brainstorming, saying mode should be a topic for discussion at another time.
“We’ve never engaged the public in an alternative transportation mode discussion,” Councilman Ryan Mello said. “For these monies and this purpose, we’ve chosen the mode. That train has left the station.”