The Transit Casino Connection: What’s the cost to tax payers?

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By Matt Nagle

matt@tacomaweekly.com

As planning continues to move forward for Sound Transit’s Tacoma Dome Link Extension (TDLE), the Puyallup tribe remains heavily active in the process. The tribe’s involvement with Sound Transit reaches back to 2004 when the tribe saw an opportunity for getting more customers to the casinos. It was then that the tribal council voted to invest $41,000 to study extending the Link light rail from the Tacoma Dome Station to the tribe’s Cascades casino complex that was being planned as a major showplace destination. The Cascades casino was never completed, but the tribe learned all about how it could benefit from Sound Transit in numerous ways. 

Four route alternatives were studied, with the goal for each one to serve peak hours of the Cascades casino operation. The tribe also wanted a terminal station at or near the front door to the casino, or a maximum walking distance of 150 feet from a terminal station to the Cascades entrance. A distance of more than 150 feet would be mitigated with moving sidewalks or something similar. 

The study called for extensive work to roadways that would have led to the casino, including widening several streets, adding lanes to I-5 on- and off-ramps, realigning streets, adding traffic signals and signage, and more, all to benefit the casino. 

Capital cost estimates for the “little Link to casino” project came in at anywhere between $45 million and $55 million. At that time, the tribe was willing to invest in making the project happen simply because tribal leaders saw dollar signs in what the tribe would get out of it. Now, with the TDLE “big Link” coming in, tribal leaders aren’t as interested in providing funding. 

For example, before the “close to Sounder” location, next to Freighthouse Square, was added to the list of options of where the Dome’s big Link station should be located, the Sound Transit board considered a “cut and cover” option for the TDLE – a shallow tunnel where a trench is excavated and roofed with an overhead support system. As appealing as this may sound, the idea for cut and cover didn’t last long.

Puyallup tribal leaders played a key role in getting cut and cover off the table, voicing its concerns over what then-Puyallup Chairman Bill Sterud said was once a native village site. 

In a letter to Sound Transit Board Chair John Marchione, Sterud wrote: “The Puyallup Tribe is deeply concerned with tunneling in the Tacoma Dome station because of the high probability of cultural and human remains in the area. As the high ground near the original mouth of the Puyallup River, the tribe knows this area to be a large traditional village site. …An above ground station will have challenges mitigating for cultural and historic resources. An underground station would expose the project to potential catastrophic risks that could end up being immitigable and prevent the completion of the project. 

“If this proposal continues forward in the EIS (Environmental Impact Study), the tribe will actively work with Sound Transit’s Cultural Resource Consultant to properly characterize the impact of a below grade station.”

Sterud is known for using outlandish claims about tribal history to manipulate the press and politicians, more or less his interpretation of what tribal history was. In fact, the original settlement of the Puyallup tribe was in the Point Defiance area and along Ruston Way. Small traces of tributaries still show that the original mouth of the Puyallup River was on the other side of Martinac where oil refineries are now. The “high ground” was off of 15thStreet and was a ceremonial space during the winter solstice, as the sun would rise above Mt. Rainier at that time of year. Mt. Rainier is not visible from the area that Sterud is referring to. 

Former Puyallup tribal chairman Bill Sterud at a rally against LNG, a typical move to grab headlines.

The tribe’s concern over the environment and history is its trump card for some type of perk from local, state and federal government. Sterud learned this lesson well in the land claims settlement of 1990 when the judge was about to bring the gavel down and give the tribe nothing. It was Norm Dicks’ strong persuasion of Puyallup tribal leaders to accept the final decision rather than get nothing. 

False claims of international banking, the cure for cancer, port development…too many boasts, too little action. It’s the tribe’s marketing tactic to ultimately promote its casino. Port development is not the tribe’s only missed opportunity. Chad Wright, tribal economic development officer, once brought the sale of Freighthouse Square to the tribal council’s attention to purchase for $1 million, a steal at the price and adjacent to tribal property won in the land claims settlement. If the tribe had the wherewithal, by working with Sound Transit and the City of Tacoma they could have come up with some amazing developments, possibly even another type of casino, entertainment facility, shopping and more. Ultimately, Freighthouse Square is a tear down. Property around the Tacoma Dome hotel and the Dome could be a valuable asset to the tribe if it had the desire and ability to develop it. 

The tribe had an opportunity a few years back to secure naming rights for the Tacoma Dome at an extremely reasonable price but did not see the value in it. Imagine a Tacoma Dome sponsored by the Emerald Queen Casino, with a Sound Transit station developed around tribal entertainment, shopping center and other attributes, enhancing the tribe’s economic growth and that of the City of Tacoma. 

The tribe’s lack of connection to downtown is akin to opening the Tacoma Mall so many years ago, creating a vacant downtown. The tribe’s original interest in the little Link could have connected downtown restaurants and bars, the Brewery District, hotels and the convention center directly to the casino. People would be able to hop on the Link to the casino for a concert and back to their hotel room without ever having to worry about parking, adding thousands of virtual parking stalls to the casino overnight.

For the current big Link, cut and cover would also have required additional, third party funding, according to Sound Transit, but the tribe expressed no interest. Andrew Strobel, the tribe’s director of planning and land use, told The News Tribune that the tribe was not “prepared for any sort of funding conversations.” This in contrast to the aforementioned 2004 study when the tribe was eager to bring the little Link to the casino doorstep and seemed to have no issue with cut and cover. 

With Sterud having brought up the possibility of the tribe standing in the way of the big Link extension should cut and cover be pursued, the idea of going underground was put to bed despite that the Dome Business District, Historic Tacoma, the Tacoma Planning Commission and others recommended further study. Mayor Victoria Woodards, who is also a Sound Transit board member, relinquished her support of cut and cover under pressure from the board and the tribe. She later stated that she was “disappointed” but that she would stand by the Sound Transit board’s decision. 

After the 2004 study, the little Link was extended but not in accordance with the tribe’s wishes. The tribe lobbied heavily, both with money and in meetings with politicians, to make the extension run from the Dome up to Salishan. This route was being pushed by then-Tacoma City Council Member Marty Campbell but had opposition from then-Mayor Marilyn Strickland, who wanted the route to go to Hilltop and Stadium District. Ultimately the tribe did not win to get the little Link extended their way.

Now, 15 years later, the tribe is building its grandiose casino that’s not quite what the doomed Cascades project was imagined to be but is at least actually happening. And the tribe continues to put itself on an island in terms of how this new EQC will blend with existing infrastructure and the TDLE. For example, the new EQC is slated to include a 200-room hotel when there is already a glut of hotels in Tacoma. The tribe could have saved itself $65 million in hotel construction costs had it worked with existing downtown hotels and small businesses in the Dome district to create a true EQC experience and share the wealth of customers with surrounding businesses. The tribe has always had an interest in having the light rail be part of its gambling complex, but seemingly only when the casino stood to benefit. The tribe’s desire for the little Link to extend to Salishan would have seriously impacted the same sacred land that tribal leaders are now giving the hands-off to where TDLE is concerned. 

The tribe isn’t walking away empty handed, though. The arm-twisting was considerable to get two private stations in front of each casino. When asking Sound Transit staff to respond to why they granted these stations, their typical answer was, “It’s political.” Tacoma City Council member Robert Thoms quoted the Tacoma Weekly publisher as saying, “This is Victoria’s thing.” The tribe gets the extra benefits for allowing us to cross the river, Woodards stated. Crossing the river as part of the big Link was worked out long ago with both the I-5 and Puyallup River bridge projects. The tribe was well compensated.

The added costs now for two private casino stations for the big Link could be upward of $112 million. On top of that, the tribe has requested a pedestrian foot bridge that goes from the Portland Avenue station to over I-5 and directly to the casino – a smart move if you can afford it at $54 million tax dollars, not tribal dollars. The surrounding area is Tacoma’s worst area for crime. In fact, the EQC is well known by Tacoma police as the number one place for car thefts. You don’t want to park on the streets. 

The new station is conveniently located against tribal economic development leader Chad Wright’s property. He owns the billboards and rents the property to the War Pony smoke shop at 26thand Portland Avenue. Even if Sound Transit does not use or purchase his lands, it becomes a very valuable piece of property. The Wright family has negotiated before with WSDOT on the staging area for the widening of I-5, unsuccessfully however, as WSDOT’s response was that it was too costly. Tribal members are allowed to negotiate directly with WSDOT, state of Washington, Tacoma and the county concerning property in trust. 

In the end, there are a lot of “what ifs” and “maybes” afoot where the tribe and TDLE are concerned and the changing casino industry as well. Whereas casino patrons used to go to casinos to primarily gamble, today in Las Vegas 70 percent of the business is entertainment and 30 percent is gambling, a trend that doesn’t seem to be fading. With the EQC, entertainment is 10 percent of the attraction and the rest is gaming. In addition, the demographic of those who go to casinos shows that they are not transit riders. It costs money to ride transit so it’s a decision to pay money for transit or at the casino. 

Another consideration regarding tribal casinos and state amenities that help ensure their success is “most favored nation” status. If one tribe gets something from the state, all other tribes are eligible for the same benefits. Does this mean that every tribe in Washington will be getting train shuttle service to the front door of their casinos? 

Even though the Puyallup Tribe’s planning department is pounding its chest that the big Link is a big achievement when it’s 10-15 years away, who knows where gambling, casinos and business will be at that time? Transportation will change and people’s entertainment choices will change. There is really no long-term plan by the tribe or city in expectation of those changes in the future – and things will change quickly. Look up “drone cycle” on the internet. Every kid is going to want one under the Christmas tree by 2030, flying to high school. It may sound crazy, but it already exists. Things change rapidly. 

The tribe is missing the boat when it comes to connecting with downtown amenities like the Trade & Convention Center and hotels, which are all connected with the little Link. Photo by Steve J. Morgan.

Without a real economic plan in place, the tribe is literally gambling with its future as soon as the Muckleshoots open a bigger and better facility just a few months down the road. The tribe’s own marketing surveys concreted that fact in place: If the Puyallups don’t build a bigger and better casino right away, they’ll lose their market share. Literally after the tribe opens up its new facility, the Muckelshoots will open a bigger and better facility. The competition will be steep in the casino business, and not just among tribes. Private gaming is rearing its head again with internet sports betting willing to share profits with the state. The Puyallup tribe is a perfect example for private gaming to get a foothold in the state of Washington. The Puyallup tribe has cost taxpayers tens of millions of dollars with freeway delays, loss of contributions, boat ramps, special needs, personal needs – all part of the request to “cross the river.” WSDOT made the river better and safer for fish and tribal fishermen alike. 

With the growing financial needs of tribal dividends paid to its members and the cost of running a mega-Vegas casino, the tribe is very limited in reinvesting in fish to keep the river alive. All their concerns go for naught – between environmental degradation and the lack of hatcheries on the river, the fish population is dwindling annually. It seems that the tribe is more concerned about headlines on the environment rather than rolling up their sleeves to fix it. 

Sometimes getting what you want isn’t all it’s cracked up to be. It’s a double-edged sword for the tribe to rely on rail to move people to the casino. Transit crime is through the roof. High security will be needed at all the Sound Transit stations. Moving thousands of people a day creates high stress, wear and tear and frustration among average folks. Sound Transit’s ridership is for people going to work, not leisure. The sheer amount of stations in such short proximity will require high security at a greater cost. 

Upon completion in 2030, the big Link will literally be a shuttle between the tribe’s casinos at a cost of upward of $200 million-plus. These costs far exceed the cost to build the casino itself. Currently, the state, county and city have done no economic impact studies on what the tribe’s new casino will mean for the area – a drain on resources and traffic will be great concerns. 

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1 COMMENT

  1. This is what a responsible, well researched and well written article looks like. Very insightful, it provides the truth that some people don’t want to hear and is a prime example of what results in a society too concerned with being politically correct. Matt, I would like to stand and applaud your work on this piece, and your editor who didn’t pull it over concerns of backlash.

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