Tacoma Link Extension Receives Final Approval

Tacoma Link Extension alignment and stations. (Sound Transit)
Tacoma Link Extension alignment and stations. (Sound Transit)

Tacoma Link is set for a significant expansion thanks to final approval by the Sound Transit Board of Directors. At a meeting yesterday, the Board voted on a resolution to confirm final routing, station location, and expansion of the existing operations and maintenance facility. Tacoma Link will be extended by 2.4 miles from its northern terminus at the Theater District to serve six new stations in Stadium District and Hilltop Neighborhood. This expansion means that Tacoma Link will more than double in length from 1.6 miles to 4 miles in total and number 12 stations. On top of that, service will be mostly improved with trains coming every 10 minutes (instead of every 12 minutes) during most hours, and off-peak service will be improved to every 20 minutes (instead of every 24 minutes).

The Board approved a U-shaped alignment that had been hotly contested throughout the earlier planning process. Built entirely at-grade, the alignment will be located within city streets using double track for most of its length. From the Theater District terminus on Commercial Street, the extended alignment will continue onto Stadium Way until it reaches North 1st Street where the street jogs up the hill. Continuing along N 1st St, the alignment will proceed toward Martin Luther King Jr. Way by way of Division Ave. The extended alignment will ultimately end at S 19th St on Martin Luther King Jr. Way.

Tacoma Link Extension alignment and stations. (Sound Transit)
Tacoma Link Extension alignment and stations. (Sound Transit)

New stations will be located at:

  • Stadium Way and S 4th St;
  • Stadium District (N 1st St and N Tacoma Ave);
  • MLK Way and Division Ave;
  • MLK Way and 6th Ave;
  • MLK Way and S 11th St; and
  • MLK Way and S 19th St.

The Theater District Station will be relocated in front of Old City Hall, a block south away from the current station. The expansion also includes a larger operations and maintenance facility just east of the existing one near Tacoma Dome Station. Sound Transit plans to retain one-car trains even during the peak as demand is not anticipated to require additional cars.

Simulations of the Tacoma Link on city streets. (Sound Transit)
Simulations of the Tacoma Link on city streets. (Sound Transit)

Sound Transit is estimating that ridership will grow from 3,000 daily riders today to 10,800 daily riders by 2035, a 360% increase. Four stations will crack 1,000+ daily boardings, with two of those along the extension: MLK Way/S 19th St (1,500 daily boardings) and MLK/Division Ave (1,300 daily boardings). Both of those stops will be in close proximity to major hospitals, which are typically high transit ridership generators. Tacoma Dome Station will still remain king with 2,300 daily boardings thanks to its status a major regional transit hub and Sounder. But the extension will also be notable for having the lowest ridership station at Stadium/S 4th St (100 daily boardings), presumably due to being hemmed in by a freeway on one side and a steep hill on the other.

Tacoma Link 2035 Ridership

Tacoma Dome 2,300
S 25th St200
Union Station900
Convention Center1,300
Commercial Street300
Theater District800
Stadium and 4th St100
Stadium District800
MLK/Division Ave1,300
MLK/6th Ave500
MLK/S 11th St800
MLK/S 19th St1,500

Trip time along the extension itself will be around 14 minutes, and end to end of the line will be about 22 minutes. That would suggest an average speed of 17 miles per hour on the extension and 18 miles per hour along the whole line.

Local activity generators along the extension corridor. (Sound Transit)
Local activity generators along the extension corridor. (Sound Transit)

To many transit purists, the alignment itself may seem somewhat mangled with its U-shape. And indeed, the short north-south alignment and low frequency may pose a serious impediment to attracting cross-town riders to transfer to the line. However, a combination of local geography, population and employment distributions, and potential for substantial infill development along the line mean that it may be a sensible approach. The extension means that 54,000 jobs and 47,000 residents will be within reach of Tacoma Link by 2035. And with 10,800 daily riders on that line alone, it will still draw in a large share of local riders, commuters, and visitors.

The project isn’t a slam-dunk yet. The total project is expected to cost $165 million, but not all funds have been secured. Sound Transit 2 funding will cover $50 million, but that still leaves $125 million needed to complete the project. That has led the to Sound Transit to partner with the City of Tacoma and apply for grants to cover part of the costs. So far, the City of Tacoma has hobbled together $33 million in federal and state grants, with the most recent one coming from a $15 million TIGER grant by the United States Department of Transportation. Tacoma must identify another $7 million to meet its $40 million pledge toward the project. Earlier this year, Sound Transit won a $75 million Smart Starts grant from the Federal Transit Administration as part of that agency’s 2016 budget proposal. Sound Transit hopes to have all funding in place by 2018 to begin construction of the project. In the meantime, the agency will begin detailed engineering and civil planning of the extension.

We hope you loved this article. If so, please consider subscribing or donating. The Urbanist is a 501(c)(4) nonprofit that depends on donations from readers like you.

Stephen is an urban planner with a passion for sustainable, livable, and diverse cities. He is especially interested in how policies, regulations, and programs can promote positive outcomes for communities. Stephen lives in Kenmore and primarily covers land use and transportation issues for The Urbanist.

Inline Feedbacks
View all comments

Good stop spacing. I’m really glad they decided to go with double track all on one street rather than a “couplet”.

Now, the U shape is still a… well… not as efficient as it could be, let’s say. Here’s hoping this is a massive success and the next extension, straight along Division Ave., gets approved. That’ll make for a functioning streetcar network “spine”.

Chris Corr

>>Sound Transit is estimating that ridership will grow from 3,000 daily riders today to 10,800 daily riders by 2035, a 360% increase.<<

That's a 260% increase, not a 360% increase.


Interesting. I think this is a good example of the limitations of surface rail transport in our area. There are sections where it makes a lot of sense, but by and large, it is hard to make a good rail transit line on the surface because we have so many hills. This is true of this light rail line, and it is true of our streetcars.

At more than 16,000 riders, the Madison BRT will exceed the ridership of both streetcars and this light rail line combined. It will also run a lot more frequently. Since it runs in a straight line, I would say it is a lot more useful to an overall transit network. In short, it costs a lot less, but delivers a lot more.

Stephen Fesler

Once the Center City Connector is implemented, the Seattle Streetcar system will carry well over 30k riders.


…According to the pulled-it-from-our-backside forecast with the 60% rail-bias/”just because” bonus.

Stephen Fesler

Also, I would say that streetcar systems can and do run very well. Often better than bus. The problem is that in the US, the systems are generally poorly implemented. Hills in our region certainly don’t help matters, but ultimately it’s routing, priority, and other elements that present major issues to better service delivery.


Streetcar (or surface rail) systems that are successful usually have four things going for them. First, they have a natural geography that is amenable to streetcars (i. e. they are flat). Second, they already have a strong streetcar infrastructure (starting over with a different system is expensive). Third, the streetcars (or light rail lines) carry more people than their buses. Fourth, they have enough density along the lines to justify the use of the higher capacity vehicles.

For Seattle, it fails on every single item. There are sections that one could argue is dense enough to justify higher capacity vehicles, but the streetcars we own are not higher capacity vehicles (our buses have just as much space). The routes are also hampered by the steepness of the hill. Higher capacity, less expensive buses running on more logical, more complementary routes would simply do a better job.

With Tacoma it is a little trickier, because they are running light rail cars, which do have higher capacity. There is an existing infrastructure (albeit 20 miles away and not directly connected to it). Unfortunately, the line doesn’t travel through a densely populated area, nor does it connect well with other buses (again, because of topographic limitations). They would be much better off with higher capacity, less expensive buses running more often on a more logical, more complementary set of routes. The buses could run more often because they are cheaper to operate.

There are very few places where streetcars make sense. The Northwest is not one of those places.


Ross, Tacoma Link is a streetcar, not light rail. Sound Transit may still call it light rail, but that doesn’t make it light rail. In the ST1 vote, they promised light rail in Tacoma, thus kinda forcing the wrong terminology.


Tomato, Tomahto. Seriously, I don’t want to get into a semantic debate as to whether this is light rail or not. Wikipedia says it is a “light rail line … located in Tacoma, WA.” Then it goes on to say “This streetcar …”. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tacoma_Link. So it is both. Fine. Notice how I clearly say “surface rail transport” to avoid a silly, meaningless debate as to what to call this.

Since we have already gone down that stupid rabbit hole, RD, what exactly is your definition as to the difference? Is it based on speed, stop spacing or capacity? Does that match with Jarrett Walker’s definition (http://www.humantransit.org/2010/03/streetcars-vs-light-rail-is-there-a-difference.html), and if so, how does this surface rail line match up?


Sorry if my bit of transit pedantry bothered you. I’ll just add that every other community in North America that operates single 20-meter 3-section cars in mixed traffic calls them streetcars. If nobody else calls them light rail, why should we?


It doesn’t bother me. I find the arbitrary definitions (including yours) to be somewhat interesting, but also pointless. What exactly is your point? Call it a tram, or trolley, or a thing-a-ma-jig. It doesn’t matter. No matter what you call it, the route sucks and will do little for the people of Tacoma because it is surface rail. If it had huge cars and fewer stops (your definition and Walker’s definition respectively for light rail) it would do even less. Despite the decent stop spacing this won’t carry that many riders. Making the cars bigger would mean even less frequency, and even worse performance. Again, the problem is that surface rail is ridiculously inappropriate for this area, where our density is low and our hills are steep.


The old part of Tacoma has plenty high density. But not so high that it needs subways. Exclusive lanes would help, but traffic doesn’t seem to be killing Tacoma Link…

If some common sense is used — if the streetcars have more capacity than the buses (which they do) and run at higher frequencies (which so far they don’t) — Pierce Transit could save a lot of bus operator hours, and money, by having the buses from the south and east (400, 500, 501, 41, 42, 102, 63) terminate at Tacoma Dome rather than Commerce & Pacific. The 57 and 48 can also be simplified on their eastern ends.

If Tacoma Link were extended down Division and 6th to TCC end, which has been the best route all along (sigh), the #1 could also be made into a route from Tacoma Dome to the south.


When I mean high density, I mean density high enough — demand high enough — to justify a rail vehicle. It doesn’t have to be as high as Manhattan, but for a surface line where it isn’t very fast, it should at least approach Brooklyn. Tacoma has its charms, but when it comes to population density, it is no Brooklyn.

Ultimately it comes down to ridership. Even a slow train can be justified if there are enough riders. But there won’t be for this line, nor will there be for the Seattle Streetcar. Of course in the case of the Seattle Streetcar, even if they magically found a route that would justify higher capacity vehicles, our streetcars aren’t higher capacity vehicles. They don’t carry more people than our buses, which makes them a particular waste of money.

In short, in the case of both the streetcars in Seattle and this surface light rail line, they started with a technology (rail) and then looked for a line to justify it, instead of the other way around. Tacoma would be much better off with a bunch of improvements to their bus system, not a rail line that will carry way fewer people than a typical Metro bus. This common sense approach is the difference between the Madison BRT and the First Hill streetcar. The streetcar costs more but will carry far fewer riders because it is far less useful.


Historically, there’s no difference between light rail and streetcars. Advocates often use the terms interchangably.

Tacoma Link is a light rail streetcar.

Seattle Link isn’t really light rail or streetcars, it’s a metro system. Some would call it a “light metro” system. It has NO street running. Even down MLK, it has its own lanes. Put in a few crossing gates, it would look a lot like the Chicago L.


Seattle Link has an average speed of 27mph, top speed of 65, uses 95ft long cars that can be connected together with up to four, and has entirely its own right of way, and is mostly grade separated.

Tacoma Link uses the exact same vehicles as the Seattle Streetcar, averaging 13mph, with a top speed of 43, 60ft long, never coupled up, and most importantly, operates in private car traffic entirely.

Seattle Link is far closer to heavy rail metros than Tacoma Link is to what we may as well call LR. It makes sense to not call them the same thing.


Fair enough. Either way it is a great example of the limitations of surface rail transport in the area (as I said). In this case the limitations are with a “streetcar”, not a “light rail line”. No matter what you call it, is a bad idea.