Tacoma’s train appears headed to the Hilltop.
After months of process, the City Council on Tuesday finally signaled where it wants the Link light rail line to expand first, with a majority of members tentatively choosing a proposed extension route from downtown to the Hilltop.
Six of the council’s nine members selected as their top or second choice the so-called “E1 North Downtown Central Corridor” – a hook-shaped, 2.3 mile route estimated to cost $133 million. The preferred option would extend the Link from downtown to the Stadium District and around to Sixth Avenue, then south along the Martin Luther King Jr. Way corridor to South 19th Street.
Mayor Marilyn Strickland, who publicly declared her support for the downtown-to-Hilltop route more than a month ago, said the choice offers the greatest opportunity to draw a large ridership, connect residents to Tacoma’s health care institutions and spur economic growth.
“I like the idea that this is something, in my opinion, that will help move the renaissance of the MLK corridor in Hilltop to the finish line, as opposed to starting something new,” Strickland added.
Joining Strickland in support of the Hilltop route were council members Ryan Mello and Lauren Walker, both of whom picked E1 as their top choice. Victoria Woodards, who didn’t attend Tuesday’s meeting, also ranked the Hilltop route as her top preference, Strickland said. Members Anders Ibsen and Robert Thoms cited it among their top secondary choices.
The council’s non-binding selection edged out an East Side route (C1) with at least four supporters and a stakeholders group’s E1/C1 hybrid line (H2), which garnered four first- or second-place nods.
With the council’s intention now made clear, city staffers are expected to draft a formal resolution citing the E1 route as the city’s choice for extending the 1.6-mile light rail line that now runs between the Dome District and downtown, Strickland said.
The council is set to vote on the measure April 30, with its formal recommendation to be sent to the Sound Transit directors’ board, which will make the final decision next month.
Strickland said Tuesday she hoped the council will adopt the measure unanimously. But Councilman Marty Campbell, who backed the runner-up C1 East Side route, said after Tuesday’s meeting the council’s decision is far from made.
“I don’t think our discussion ends today,” Campbell said. “I think we’ll hear a lot more from the community before this is all over with.”
In fact, more than a dozen East Side residents – mostly teenagers – showed up at the regular council meeting later Tuesday in a protest of sorts over the council’s tentative Link selection. Clad in yellow T-shirts and waving signs reading, “Don’t isolate the Eastside,” and “C1 and see us all succeed,” group members want the council to reconsider. Several people among the group said they plan to attend next week’s meeting when the council formally decides the issue.
During the Link discussion earlier Tuesday, Campbell argued his case for the C1 route. By choosing the Portland Avenue corridor, he said, the council had the chance to “prime” now vacant parcels for private development, as well as to connect Salishan residents to jobs, educational and recreational opportunities.
“We built the Salishan neighborhood out… on an island,” Campbell said. “And now we have thousands of families moving in there with very limited access to jobs, to arts and culture, to food and to education.”
Campbell also told fellow council members the Puyallup Tribe’s spokesman had assured him before Tuesday’s meeting the tribe was willing to contribute $12 million over five years to help fund the route. The amount largely would make up the amount needed from community partners to build the $119 million extension route, he said.
“It’s hard to argue with a fully funded route,” Campbell said.
John Weymer, the tribe’s spokesman, disputed Campbell’s statement later Tuesday, saying the tribe hasn’t made a firm funding commitment.
Weymer cited a far more vague commitment from the Puyallups detailed in a letter the tribe sent to Sound Transit last month.
“Funding for the expanded light rail system, no matter which alternative, is the challenge,” the letter states. “The Tribe would be very willing to discuss our assistance with that funding, but only if the light rail is brought to Portland Avenue.”
The tribe recently announced plans for a major expansion of the Emerald Queen Casino, which is located along the C1 route.
Councilman David Boe, also a supporter of the East Side route, noted Tuesday the C1 option would provide Link “the best regional potential to eventually get to the airport,” and better serve several city-owned assets, including the Tacoma Dome, Exhibition Hall and Greater Tacoma Trade and Convention Center.
“It has the potential to double the capacity of running people to Tacoma Dome events,” Boe said.
But a majority of supporters for the Hilltop line contended its combination of potential ridership, development and competitiveness for funding bested all other options.
Mello said the route not only “serves the densest communities,” but also connects people to major employers along Tacoma’s so-called Medical Mile between Tacoma General and St. Joseph hospitals.
“I believe you run transit where there’s ridership,” Mello said.
Extending the route to the Hilltop also would position Tacoma Link better for future expansion than other routes, he added.
Walker, who represents the Hilltop, said the E1 route meets several key criteria, including serving “under-served neighborhoods, spurring economic development and competitiveness for federal funds.”
Noting she also liked the East Side C1 route to Salishan, Walker added she “couldn’t see going forward with public funds just to connect to the casino,” as suggested in the stakeholders’ hybrid route.
But Ibsen and Councilman Joe Lonergan each cited the H2 hybrid as their top choice, saying it makes the best compromise route. Lonergan said it wasn’t “a train to the casino,” but a line to a mixed use center with potential to eventually get to Salishan.
During the meeting, several council members – including Campbell, Boe and Lonergan — expressed frustration with what they described as Sound Transit’s still incomplete and incorrect data about some of the various alternatives.
Strickland said her decision came not from data, but personal experience.
“I don’t need algorithms and a sheet with a hundred cells to figure out where this thing needs to go,” she said. “You can walk around, drive around and figure out where the activity is, what’s ripe for development (and) where people are walking.”
Construction of the proposed Link extension remains dependent on funding. Tacoma’s project still would need to beat out others for a $50 million “Small Starts” grant from the Federal Transit Authority and raise up to an estimated $50 million from yet unspecified partners to match transit tax revenues and help cover the expansion.