Tacoma’s Little Link making headway to TCC, but not without headaches

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Sound Transit continues its most ambitious transit expansions in the country, with Tacoma’s ‘little Link’ growth a key part of it.

When Tacoma Link service began in 2003, it was the first modern light rail system to be constructed in Washington State. Since that time, with voter approval in 2008 and 2016, Sound Transit continues to build the most ambitious transit expansion in the country, with new service opening every few years. Ultimately, the “little Link” expansions happening in Stadium District, Hilltop and out to Tacoma Community College will interface with the “big Link” line connecting Tacoma to SeaTac airport and points further north, with this whole Sound Transit system capable of taking Tacoma riders to the corner market or all the way to Everett. 

Approved in a regional transit ballot measure passed in 1996, little Link construction began in 2000 and service between the Tacoma Dome and Theater District started three years later. At that time, the Link operated with five stations. Starting at the Tacoma Dome station, the Link heads west to a stop at South 25th Street then turns north on Pacific Avenue to Union Station and the Convention Center. The Theater District stop was added in 2011 at Commerce Street and South 11thStreet. 

Now, the “Orange Line,” as it is called, is being extended much further. The first phase, the Hilltop Tacoma Link Extension, will travel from the Theater District north to Old City Hall and South 4th Street, up to the Stadium District then south along Martin Luther King Jr. Way with stops at Tacoma General Hospital, 6th Avenue, the Hilltop District, and St. Joseph Hospital. 

TCC GETS CONNECTED

In 2016, voters approved a second extension as part of Sound Transit 3 ballot measure. This second phase, the Tacoma Community College Link Extension, will add 3.5 miles of tracks along South 19th Street to the terminus at the existing TCC Transit Center, a major Pierce Transit hub. There are 530 trips on an average day in and out of that center; as of 2016, 1.4 million riders board on and off the buses at this location. Having more light rail with Tacoma Link would greatly benefit the Transit Center and the riders who use public transportation.

The rail line will travel down the middle of South 19th Street with four center platform stations – South Sprague Avenue, South Union Avenue, South Stevens Street, South Pearl Street – and two side platform stations in the vicinity of South Ainsworth Avenue. The line will cross SR 16 over an independent bridge.

“Tacoma Community College supports more transportation options that improve access for the South Sound community, especially for students. Tacoma is growing,” said Dr. Ivan L. Harrell, President of Tacoma Community College. “What we especially like about extending Tacoma Link is that it will provide more direct access for our college community, especially our students, and the broader community, to all of the communities between TCC and UWT. And because of the many partnerships between TCC and UWT, students at both institutions will benefit greatly from this expanded access. Overall, as an institution that was founded to expand educational access, we believe the Tacoma Link expansion will allow more of our community members better access to a quality education at TCC.”

Because of the many partnerships between TCC and UWT, students at both institutions will benefit greatly from the expanded Link access.

University Place Mayor Pro Tem Steve Worthington said the city is very much looking forward to the little Link coming to U.P., the biggest transportation project to come up in his 20 years of working for the city. 

“We’re seeing it as a key transportation corridor for us. The hub will be right at the intersection of TCC, Fircrest, Tacoma and U.P., so bringing this key connection to these four different entities is a major economic driver for our communities,” he said. “Businesses recognize that this is an investment in infrastructure and economic development for them that delivers customers. We think it’s a great opportunity and we’re eager to get to the planning activities jointly with Fircrest, Tacoma and TCC.”

Worthington said that since planning for the little Link to arrive at TCC involves stakeholders within the “four corners” area at the intersection of South 19th Street and Mildred Street, it ties in nicely with the Four Corners Coalition that former U.P. Mayor Kent Keel brought together last year. Now the chair of the Sound Transit board (his last day as U.P. mayor was Jan. 6), Keel’s four corners vision came at the perfect time.

The Four Corners Coalition is comprised of interested parties with projects planned or underway within the “four corners” area, and their first meeting was held this past October. Keel said that he was very pleased at the turnout, which consisted of the mayors of U.P., Fircrest and Tacoma, Tacoma Housing Authority Executive Director Michael Mirra, Metro Parks Tacoma Board President Aaron Pointer, and representatives from TCC, the Office of the Governor, Sound Transit, Pierce Transit and Pierce County. At that meeting, the group talked about opportunities to collaborate on plans that each person was involved in to keep everyone informed and on the same page, so to speak. Everything was turned over to planners who worked on a draft document that will ultimately serve as a blueprint for what’s to come in the four corners prior to Sound Transit arriving with little Link construction crews.

“We want to put together a plan to move forward,” Keel said. “Now chair of Sound Transit, I’m well poised to keep it in front of Sound Transit as an idea to work with all partners in the four corners to make coordinated efforts and the best use of public funds.”

Among the projects that Keel mentioned coming to the four corners is a Tacoma Housing Authority (THA) initiative at James Center, on Mildred Street across from TCC. THA has plans to redevelop the site into 300 units of affordable and market rate multi-family housing units with retail space for 13 businesses. Fircrest has numerous development plans on the table, and recently welcomed the popular Chick-fil-A to town with a location on South 19th Street across from TCC. And in University Place southwest of TCC, the city has long-term plans to redevelop the area near the Narrows Plaza bowling alley. 

We also have, during this legislative session in Olympia, a budgetary ‘ask’ for seed money so we can build out this four corners,” Keel said. “It’s a great project because we have all these people working together for economic development – to build up the economy for the state and provide great service to citizens. Having everyone involved is going to be fantastic for this area and community.”

Sound Transit has indicated that early planning for the TCC Link Extension is scheduled to start in 2026 and open for riders in 2039. Estimated cost is between $447-$478 million to serve 13,000-18,000 riders as projected for the year 2040. With this extension, Tacoma Link grows to 8.4 miles with 18 stations, connecting to the Tacoma Dome Station, which will be served by regional light rail starting in 2030. 

“The ‘little Link’ is very important to the overall system,” Keel said. “Without it, we don’t have a product that can go into the neighborhoods to provide seamless transportation service from close to destination and back.”

Even though the little Link service to TCC is a decade away, Worthington said that the time to start planning is now in order to possibly avoid some of the headaches that cropped up during little Link construction in the Stadium District. 

“To get all the pieces in place and construction done, to ensure that the design is optimized for all the various stakeholders and that it’s done in quality manner, all takes time. It’s best to start approaching things early because in the details of the design, you have opportunities to relocate sewers and telecommunication lines. One of the challenges in the Stadium District has been conflict with existing utilities. That’s something we can get ready for. The more time we have to get ready, the better the outcome will be.”

HILLTOP: 2022

The 2.4-mile Hilltop Link Extension is scheduled to open in 2022. It will more than double the length of the Link and will add the first six new stops through Stadium and Hilltop. These connect to popular destinations like Stadium District, Wright Park and major medical facilities before reaching the new Hilltop neighborhood terminus. The project will provide additional access to Tacoma’s downtown corridor, with several new housing, retail and commercial developments already planned along the new route.

Tracks run in existing road lanes and are compatible with on-street parking and existing bicycle facilities. Platforms will be located in the center roadway. The project also includes expansion of the Operations and Maintenance Facility located on East 25th Street to accommodate five new light rail vehicles.

Funding for the $217 million Hilltop extension project was completed with a $75 million Federal Transit Administration (FTA) Small Starts grant awarded to Sound Transit last year. The rest of the funding came from voter-approved Sound Transit 2 funds, the City of Tacoma and other federal and state grants. 

“As communities in and around Tacoma continue to grow, we have an opportunity to make sure transportation options for workers, students, patients and families keep up” said Sen. Patty Murray in statement. She and Rep. Derek Kilmer were key proponents in landing the FTA grant.“Expanding light rail to the Medical Mile and Hilltop communities is a major step forward that will increase access to safe, reliable transportation and facilitate economic development in the city.” 

Construction in Stadium District began last spring, with crews starting 2020 by installing traffic signals, lighting, track and power poles. Crews will start installing track in the North Tacoma Avenue and North 1st Street intersection as early as Jan. 22. This intersection will be completely closed for this work. 

Activity in Hilltop began a few months later, where crews this month are starting sewer work and plan to begin installing track on Martin Luther King Jr. Way near South 18th Street as early as Jan. 27.

NEXT STOP: EASTSIDE?

There was a time not too long ago when taking the little Link to the eastside was being talked about and had support from Tacoma City Council members, including then-Council member Marty Campbell. Ultimately, the route didn’t happen that way, with plans instead made for taking the little Link up through Stadium and to Hilltop, which was preferred by then-Mayor Marilyn Strickland.

“We were in a really interesting situation where we had the opportunity to extend the little Link and had neighborhoods clamoring for it,” Strickland said. “We had to make a tough decision and because the hospitals on MLK are such big job centers, the opportunity to get the little Link up the hill seemed like the better choice.”

The idea to take the little Link to the eastside isn’t currently being considered by Sound Transit, but Mayor Victoria Woodards said she believes that it is worth reviewing at some point. “As we continue to build out transit in the region, someday you’ll be able to get on a train from a station at east Tacoma and up Portland Avenue,” she said. “In my opinion, we have to look at the long term more than what we can afford today.”

Now a member of the Pierce County Council, Campbell represents District 5 that encompasses East Tacoma, Parkland, Midland and portions of Spanaway.

“I would love it,” he said of extending the little Link to the eastside. “It is something that, no matter where I sit, I will always be an advocate for. I’ve always thought that taking it to the eastside was cost effective and a natural extension of the route. I don’t think this needs to be an either/or proposition. We need to work toward expanding service to people all across our community who would benefit.”

Campbell pointed out that given how the eastside is not as densely built up like Stadium District and Hilltop, construction to extend the Link would cause far fewer impacts to businesses and residents there, not to mention the high capacity of Portland Avenue to handle a light rail route.

“It would also hit the equity goals of public transportation as well by serving a neighborhood that has a need to be connected to more services. It would mean connection to education, health care, food, jobs, banking…,” he said. “It would truly provide economic development to areas that may not be developed yet by creating nodes to build around.” 

Bringing the little Link to the eastside would also bring more people to the area – residents, business people, workers and tourists alike. Looking at other cities, San Francisco, for example, that city’s famous cable car trolley system forms part of the intermodal urban transport network just as the little Link does in Tacoma. While San Francisco’s trollies attract a fair share of local commuters, a larger majority of riders are tourists who not only hop on board to simply enjoy the ride, but to get to attractions like Union Square and Fisherman’s Wharf. Such a tourist trade, even in the form of visitors from nearby cities like Renton or Seattle, could do wonders for the eastside if such visitors had an easy and convenient way to get there.

Strickland, who recently announced her run for Congressman Denny Heck’s seat, weighed in on the regional benefits of transit connectivity.

“When you think about transit agencies, whether Pierce Transit or Sound Transit, the ideal scenario here is we make these investments so that we can connect people. You shouldn’t have to own a car to participate in the economy. We want to make it easy for people to move through the city and connect to other cities,” she said.

“For so long, the conversation about mass transit was about how to get people from the South Sound to Seattle, but how do we get people from Seattle to the South Sound? We need to think of ourselves as a large, multi-jurisdictional region that works together and investment in mass transit helps us to do just that.”

Above all, Strickland said that housing investments must be part of the equation when it comes to transit expansions. “When we think of mass transit investments, we need to think of housing and how to connect the two. We have an opportunity as we look at some of the areas around the South Sound, which are growing really fast, to get it right.” 

A little Link connection to Fife would be a boon to that city as well. Fife City Council member Pat Hulsey sees the little Link as much better fit and great asset for Fife.

“With traffic being such an issue in Fife, the big Link will not alleviate the immediate traffic problem facing businesses and the community,” he said. “A little Link from the Dome District to Fife would serve the community better than a larger Sound Transit station. Fife and Tacoma are neighbors. Fife shares the same amenities, like the Dome, museums and other attractions that bring people to this area.”

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