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Tacoma Councilman David Boe says his hybrid plan for Link expansion has been misunderstood by, well just about everybody

Post by Peter Callaghan / The News Tribune on April 16, 2013 at 11:20 am with No Comments »
April 16, 2013 11:20 am

Tacoma City Councilman David Boe, he of the back-of-the-napkin plan to extend Link light rail in Tacoma, sounds a bit like Eric Burdon (Google it).

You know, “I’m just a soul whose intentions are good; Oh Lord, please don’t let me be misunderstood.”

His request of Sound Transit, delivered via City Manager T.C. Broadnax, was for an extension of existing Link tracks that reached Martin Luther King, Jr. Way … eventually. But Boe says Sound Transit misinterpreted his suggested route.

Sound Transit last week reported that the route they studied had engineering and cost problems. That route sought to get up the hill from the Tacoma Dome station to MLK from the south. Because of the steepness of the hillside, the only route that was feasible took trains around Center Street for an eventual climb up the hill via S. J Street. From there they traveled down MLK Way to – depending of how long the money lasted – to S. 19th Street, S. 11th Street or 6th Avenue.

But because of the expense of getting up the hill, the so-called hybrid plan (because it entailed parts of already studied routes) was too expensive and added operation costs that other routes did not have, Sound Transit staff concluded.

(Sound Transit will brief the council today at noon and the council will discuss alternates routes and perhaps decide which to support for further study).

Boe, however, says he never suggested climbing all the way to Hilltop but instead wanted the regional transit agency to look at what Boe calls a “mid-hill” route. While his sketch wasn’t specific as to streets (because ST wanted the city to think general corridors rather than specific streets) he now says he had a route in mind that looks like this:

David Boe's sketch of a proposed expansion of light rail in Tacoma
David Boe’s recent sketch of a proposed expansion of light rail in Tacoma that more-directly identifies Tacoma Avenue

New tracks would extend from where existing tracks turn north on Pacific Avenue (think Elephant Car Wash) up S. 25th Street to Jefferson Street. From there, it would travel south to the intersection with Tacoma Avenue and then turn sharply north and use Tacoma Avenue to reach 6th.

Boe claims this would then allow the train to head up 6th to intersect with MLK and could traverse that street and/or keep going down 6th Avenue. From the other end of Tacoma Avenue, Boe believes future extensions could cross I-5 toward the Lincoln District.

So why did Sound Transit not study this route? The best answer could be that the letter from Broadnax to Sound Transit executive director Joni Earl described a much-different route. He first describes the council’s hope of extended tracks from the Tacoma Dome Station toward the proposed Puyallup Tribal Casino expansion at E. 29th Street and Portland Avenue. He then asked Earl to look at an extension like this:

“… 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 City is fully aware that the recommended hybrid is longer in distance when compared to the other three corridors. Therefore, we are open to the terminus of this corridor being located in another location within the MLK MUC. Other logical terminus choices would be at South 19th and MLK Jr. Way or at South 11th and MLK Jr. Way.”

Broadnax had to summarize the council’s request based on a lengthy and vague discussion at a council committee of the whole meeting. Broadnax asked the Council several times for clarification on what he was to seek from Sound Transit. He referenced Boe’s sketch describing a “C1/E2 Hybrid Corridor” to frame his question.

“I appreciate Councilman Boe’s lovely illustration, but is the question where you want to get to 6th or some other point on MLK?,” Broadnax asked council members at one point.

David Boe's "Hybrid Corridor" sketch.
David Boe’s “Hybrid Corridor” sketch.

To which Boe responded: “I wasn’t saying it went down MLK, but the destination to reach would be 6th and MLK.” Based on the result of that summary, Sound Transit seems to have done what he requested and found the plan wanting.

Val Batey, a senior transportation planner for Sound Transit, said she spoke with several councilmembers including Boe after release of the cost estimates and “we learned pretty quickly from him that he was not happy.”

But Batey said the agency thinks it did what the city manager requested. Studying a Tacoma Avenue route would not be a hybrid route because the agency never looked at the costs and construction issues on that street.

So Boe was misunderstood. What about his actual plan? According to this idea, Tacoma would spend $150 million ($50 million from Sound Transit taxes, $50 million in hoped-for federal money and $50 million not yet identified) to build tracks that run parallel to the existing downtown tracks four blocks down the hill. It would not really reach any of the dense neighborhoods served by the other plans such as Broadway/St. Helens, Stadium, MLK Way or 6th Avenue.

It also likely has engineering issues as the initial climb to Jefferson is steeper than existing equipment can negotiate. Batey said it could be accomplished but would require trenching in the right of way to soften the grade.

Finally, it is based on a conclusion that Boe has reached about the existing Link line downtown that is not backed up by history – that the existing route was never intended to be the backbone of a larger system and was only meant to be a circulator between downtown and the Tacoma Dome.

An $80 million connector that could never be expanded? If that was the intent, then why did ST climb from Pacific Avenue to Commerce Street in mid-route. The stated reason was to soften the eventual climb up Stadium Way (the unstated was to satisfy well-connected Pacific Avenue building owners who didn’t want to lose street parking). Once in Stadium, tracks could go all sorts of places through the city but in the meantime would have connected some of the most-dense areas.

Several councilmembers have soured on that idea. The reasons include complaints from Stadium Way residents about noise and yet-another period of construction; that the tracks would be on the bottom of a steep hill, that the tracks would have unoccupied bluffside on one side, that the area lacks lots of undeveloped land that could absorb transit-oriented-development spurred by the new route, and it would appear elitist by serving an area with some wealth at the expense of poorer areas such as the eastside.

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