Is Our Future Station on Track?

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Tacoma deserves the best transit station we can get. Will our city and local leaders make it happen? 

With just a short time left before plans are solidified for Sound Transit’s Tacoma Dome Link Extension (TDLE), concerns continue about where Tacoma’s downtown station will be located and what exactly it will do to enhance and grow the city now and in the future.

With Tacoma being the top regional transportation hub in the state, where the station will be and how it will benefit transit users and the city economically are key issues. Existing regional transportation hub services already in place in the Dome district include Sounder commuter rail, Pierce Transit bus lines, Greyhound, charter and Intercity bus lines, and Tacoma’s light rail line. Amtrak and WSDOT passenger rail service will soon be added at Freighthouse Square station, along with additional multi-modal connections. This list illustrates the importance of the TDLE station in how it will integrate with existing transit and help build a strong Tacoma for decades to come.

“Comprehensive planning and a focused vision are essential if we want to produce a ‘great’ station for downtown Tacoma,” said Dome Business District President Janice McNeal. “It should leverage the investments already made by building an attractive station that exemplifies transit-oriented development for our city. The design should include a well thought out master plan that integrates transit, housing, traffic management, parking, entertainment amenities, safety, and creates a walkable and bike friendly neighborhood that attracts economic investment to the city and region.”

The rail line will be a massive, elevated track akin to the size of a freeway ramp and up to four stories tall as illustrated in this photo taken during the construction of East Link extension passing through Bellevue. 
Credit: Sound Transit

The Sound Transit board has committed itself to making TDLE work for Tacoma, as detailed in a resolution that the board approved this past July. It reads, in part: “Recognizing that the Tacoma Dome Station is the stop for downtown Tacoma and the South Sound’s regional multi-modal hub, the Board directs staff to work with the City of Tacoma, Puyallup Tribe, local transit agencies, Amtrak, the City’s Transit Oriented Development Advisory Group and other stakeholders to ensure the Tacoma Dome Station represents the highest possible level of urban design and integration and catalyzes transit-oriented development in the neighborhood.” 

Mayor Victoria Woodards said she is pleased with how things have been going so far. “The overall process, I would say, has gone fairly well. It’s a very complex process and with so many layers. We are in the very early stages and we’ll see what will happen over the next couple of years to determine what the recommendations will be.”

On the table are four location options for the Dome station, three of which involve busy streets that act as main arterials to and from the Dome District and beyond: two locations on East 25th and one on East 26th. The fourth option is next to Freighthouse Square on an existing right of way next to railroad track that is not in use. Referred to as “close to Sounder,” the fourth option would impact the east side of Freighthouse Square, which would have to be remodeled to accommodate the new station. “Close to Sounder” also integrates retail into the station design, unlike the other three options.

In Denver, the A Linewhisks travelers to the heart of downtown, specifically the recently restored Union Station, which is the city’s new transportation hub and “living room,” thanks to its plush surroundings. From Union Station, travelers can access additional local and regional transportation services, such as light rail, regional and local buses, Amtrak rail service, taxis, and the free 16thStreet Mall shuttle (MallRide) and free downtown MetroRide buses that provide access to most downtown hotels. Union Station itself is a beautiful 1914 Beaux-Arts building and the location of hiplocally ownedrestaurants, bars, shops anda boutique hotel. Skidmore, Owings & Merrill was architect, structural engineer, and master planner of the project. Photo courtesy of SOM | © Magda Biernat  
 

This past July, Sound Transit picked its preferred location. Coming from Federal Way then through Fife, Sound Transit’s preferred extension into Tacoma would head along Pacific Highway East with an East Tacoma station between East 26th Street and East 25th Street. It would end at an elevated Tacoma Dome station near East 25th Street, west of G Street.

Brian Boudet, manager of the city’s Planning Services division and a city liaison with Sound Transit, said that he does not yet have a preferred location in mind, as there are still numerous options on the table and the “close to Sounder” option has not been fully analyzed yet due to it coming in as an option later than the other three. However, he said “close to Sounder” addresses what Tacoma City Council and the community are concerned about regarding the impacts on streets in the Dome district.

Overall, Boudet is pleased progress so far with the TDLE. “I’m really interested to see over the next year how the community engagement, design and environmental review process work out. It’s at the beginning of a big analysis process now. There are a lot of encouraging views in that the ‘close to Sounder’ option is something that the Sound Transit board decided to move forward with and consider. It’s a whole new option but responds to many of the communities’ concerns.”

Tacoma City Council member Robert Thoms, whose district encompasses the Dome area, favors the ‘close to Sounder’ location.

“Adjacent to Sounder is the way to go,” he said. “It is emerging as best alternative. You want the shortest and most efficient move from one transit system to the other; the further you go from these stations, the more you lose ridership. I work for the people but it appears they also like that it’s the least disruptive. We are trying to make it as easy as possible to ride.”

Mayor Woodards said that she is interested in the ‘close to Sounder’ option as well. “But my heels are not dug in with ‘close to Sounder.’ My mind is not dead set on any one thing yet.”

The Roosevelt Station in Seattle will offer three potential sites for transit-oriented development. The largest, Cedar Crossing, will provide approximately 254 affordable housing units on a 1.2 acre property adjacent to the north station building, including 87 two- and three-bedroom units for larger families. A public plaza, child care center and ground-floor retail will provide services for transit riders and the broader neighborhood.
Credit: Sound Transit

Because our city is home to the state’s top regional transportation hub, coupled with the transportation dollars the state has invested in it, leveraging the TDLE to attract economic development is important to the overall visioning. Where the station and rail line go are critical decisions, as the rail line will be a massive, elevated track akin to the size of a freeway ramp and up to four stories tall. Not only would it darken the streets below; it would pose a problem for developers looking to build around the area whether retail or affordable housing. A good example to imagine is the Monorail that travels along 5thAvenue in Seattle, as it created a rather dark and dreary atmosphere on the street and stalled development.

“The right alignment is essential for this Tacoma downtown urban station because you want to provide the best experience to attract transit users and future economic development,” McNeal said. 

Boudet agreed. “We see in the region that the development industry reacts pretty strongly to light rail investments. This is a cool chance for the Dome district. The district has had a vision for a long time to be a mixed-use community and the City and other agencies have been working to capitalize on all the transportation investments there. Now we’re just starting to see the fruits of that conversation. It’s exciting and starting to trigger people’s imaginations about what the district really can be as an urban neighborhood. As we see more and more folks live in the area, this is the opportunity to take that to the next level.”

Looking at how other cities are capitalizing on the Link expansion is an eye opener to what is possible in Tacoma. Bellevue’s Spring Street Station for the East Link light rail is good example of building for the future. Located at the hub of the growing mixed-use Spring District neighborhood, REI has already signed up as an anchor tenant. Transit oriented development, including housing, jobs and retail, anchor this open-air station, which is located below street level. 

The structural work in the East Link tunnel under downtown Bellevue is wrapping up. Rail installation begins soon.
Credit: Sound Transit

At the Roosevelt Station in Seattle, Sound Transit and the Seattle Office of Housingpartnered to create affordable housing adjacent the station by offering the property at a discounted land price, as well as up to $15 million in pre-committed affordable housing financing from the City of Seattle.

Thoms said that he is committed to doing all he can to bring to the Dome district a true community asset, a station that is inviting, safe and activates the entire Dome District as an invitation to Tacoma that we can all be proud of.

“This station will likely be the second most used station in the Sound Transit system the day it opens. It is imperative that Sound Transit gets it right for Tacoma and for the users of the Sound Transit system,” he said. “We must have a station that is an urban center with amenities for the community, creating a space that is multifunctional and provides opportunities for local businesses to grow and locate as passengers use the transit options. That is my number one priority for this station – to show ‘Tacoma welcomes you to the heart of the South Sound. ‘Come have fun and enjoy our wonderful waterfront city.”

“As co-chair of TDLE and a board member of Sound Transit, I’m working closely with Sound Transit staff to make sure that whatever the station looks like, that there is real connection to east Tacoma,” Woodards said. “For the Dome district, we’re really working to make that a transit oriented development area. It has become the best urban station in the system. It’s really important to me that it becomes a part of the community and more than just a station, that it’s a useful station.”

When Tacoma Dome Link service is underway, it will offer fast travel to destinations across the region, including South Federal Way to Tacoma Dome Station in 20 minutes, Fife to Tacoma Dome Station in six minutes and from Tacoma Dome Station to Sea-Tac Airport in 35 minutes. Sound Transit hopes to break ground in Tacoma in 2025and open in 2030 – that is if Initiative 976 is either rejected in court or the legislature moves to provide funding. 

Downtown Bellevue can be seen from the guideway leading up to Wilburton Station.
Credit: Sound Transit

When I-976 passed in November, it not only capped car tab fees at $30; it hit transportation funding square in the gut, wiping out $20 billion for projects including light rail expansion.The state’s budget office estimates that the initiative would eliminate more than $4 billion in tax revenue by 2025. I-976 was scheduled to go into effect on Dec. 5, but King County Superior Court Judge Marshall Ferguson granted a preliminary injunction in late November. Now, legal filings for and against the initiative are stacking up, setting up a possible showdown in the state Supreme Court to decide the initiative’s fate. 

The four TDLE citing proposals that are currently on the table are all in a holding pattern because it is yet unknown where the alignment is going. Each proposal will go through a Draft Environmental Impact Statement, at which time suggested costs for each could be calculated. Time is of the essence in Tacoma’s case – the Draft EIS are slated to begin this spring.

After collecting and considering public input on the Draft EIS, the Sound Transit Board will confirm or modify the preferred alternative for evaluation in a Final EIS. The Final EIS will also respond to comments on the Draft EIS and is scheduled to be published in 2022. After the Final EIS is issued, the Board will select the project to be built. 

This past summer, the Transit Oriented Development Advisory Group (TODAG) formed under the leadership of council member Thoms. TODAG brings together residents, business and property owners, and the planning and economic development communities to help inform the design and development of significant transit projects throughout the City to facilitate long-term sustainable growth. 

TODAG is emphasizing five station design principles: to integrate the design for multi-modal connectivity; to ensure orientation toward economic development; to incorporate architecture and iconic spaces for place-making and urban form; to include an authentic social and cultural response to the community and to appeal to non-transit users. The group also embraces concepts in the South Downtown Subarea Plan, adopted by the city council in 2013 as an element of the city’s Comprehensive Plan. The subarea plan envisions the south downtown area to be a vibrant, walkable, mixed-use community with housing, health care, education, transportation, employment and recreation choices. 

“Their role is huge,” Boudet said of the TODAG. “They are really structured to provide input and help guide and make sure that the community has the opportunity to have its best foot forward.”

“Sound Transit is coming through the heart of Tacoma; Tacoma isn’t going through the heart of Sound Transit,” Thoms said. “Our values and our needs must be met and I think Sound Transit is honestly trying to do that. 

At its next meeting, TODAG is scheduled to choose the chair and vice chair and to finalize initial input on its Sound Transit Central Link station concepts. Since TODAG’s regularly scheduled meeting dates fall on holidays this month and next month, the group decided to shift the next two meetings to Monday, Jan. 27 and Feb. 24, both 4-6 p.m. at the Tacoma Municipal Building, Room 248. The public is invited and encouraged to attend.  

“For me, the tricky thing is that these are huge decisions,” Boudet said. “It’s tricky for folks to have a clear sense of what decisions are being made when, for example, we now have four (station location) options for the Dome and people may feel the need to choose. But all four are going into the environmental review process, which will take about a year, and a decision not made until early 2021. Sound Transit will analyze everything then the community will have time to offer more input.”

Thoms advised to keep in mind that until the groundbreaking officially happens, anything is possible. “New information, better data come forward. It’s hard for big government to be nimble but let’s at least not be dismissive of things citizens want: the most efficient, safest, cost effective and to meet all the values of the community. It will be in the state’s second largest city so we need to treat it was such.” 

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