Let’s consider the lunacy of the journey foisted on public transit users: after riding at least 80 minutes from Capitol Hill or Downtown Seattle in order to reach Tacoma, riders must disembark Link light rail and await an untimed transfer with the T streetcar line — for an additional 15 to 25 minutes of travel time — all to reach the UW Tacoma campus, the city’s premier museums, key bus transfers, inner-city neighborhoods, and the workplaces of the downtown.

To any reasonable person unfamiliar with the current rail arrangement in Tacoma, this would be deeply illogical rail planning. And yet this will be Tacoma’s rail transit future, the consequence of early 1990s urban planning for a then-stricken community, financed in 2016 for a city on the rebound, then not opening for service until 2032 (or later) for a city that has since been utterly remade.

A map of the proposed Link routes in Tacoma and stations.
The above Link light rail map shows where service will terminate at the Tacoma Dome. A connection with the T Line streetcar planned to transport passengers from the Tacoma Dome to Old City Hall where the Hilltop Extension light rail service resumes. (Credit: Sound Transit)

Sound Transit should strongly consider extending Link light rail into Central Tacoma. The agency should advance such an alignment not only because it makes the most sense from a community and transit-planning perspective, but also because rail investments of this sort clearly have a dramatic impact on their adjacent neighborhoods. Tacoma is primed to accept new urban development and continue to grow into a regional urban showcase—as long as the rail facilities are provided.

However, Sound Transit’s Tacoma Dome Link Extension (TDLE), a conceptually dubious megaproject already beset by a two-year realignment delay and steadily rising costs (now approximately $340-million per mile), marches inexorably forward with a fatal flaw. While corridor planning continues within the larger DEIS (draft environmental impact statement) framework, which is to be released in mid-2022, none of that work will actually allow for trains to travel into Central Tacoma. The current TDLE alignment alternatives will forever preclude an extension into Downtown, bringing urgency to the selections now under review.

A photo of a five story brick building.
The University of Washington Tacoma campus bookstore in Downtown Tacoma. (Credit: JoeSouthernCA, Creative Commons)

After spending vast sums of public funds to route a rail corridor into the South Sound, Link light rail will miss its economic and cultural heart. Instead, the TDLE will terminate in a suburb-focused transfer center that is within walking distance of large swaths of permanent surface parking and a drive-in movie theater. Places ignored entirely by the rail line include the transformative University of Washington Tacoma urban campus, a sophisticated museum center and pedestrianized waterway, a revitalized Downtown with the largest office center in Washington State outside of Seattle or Bellevue, and innumerable local transit connections. TDLE proposes to mandate transfers to access these critical points of interest that, for any other sensibly planned rail corridor, would be on the main line.

The fact that TDLE is to end at its namesake Dome Station is not exclusively the fault of Sound Transit. Tacoma Dome has been very intentionally planned as a major transit node since at least the early 1990s by a variety of civic and institutional players, and there has been success in implementing these plans and improving the immediate neighborhood. With the construction of a nearby apartment building already complete and more in the pipeline, the Dome District (or old Hawthorne neighborhood) might very well achieve some prominence in due time, even with its constrained tracts of developable parcels. Still, the Dome District is unequivocally not Downtown Tacoma, and this will always be the case regardless of the presence of a few new residential structures.

A photo of a dome style stadium surrounded by parking lots near a freeway.
An aerial view of the Tacoma Dome and surrounding area. (Credit: Google Maps)

Much like how Northgate is neither the equal of Westlake nor of University Street in Downtown Seattle, it would be nonsensical to prevent the newest rapid-transit rail line of the Puget Sound from accessing the urban core of Tacoma. Long neglected and overlooked, Central Tacoma has worked hard to secure decades of thoughtful urban rehabilitation, and the product of that effort is a historic city that is thriving in all of its corners. The Tacoma of the 1980s and 1990s is not the Tacoma of today, and the future of the city is no longer in doubt—indeed, the success and well-being of the place is generally understood as certain. With the heyday of urban Tacoma no longer relegated to the distant past, its urban core should not be treated with the disdain exemplified by the termination of critical rail services one mile or more from its primary destinations.

Central Tacoma Link Extension (CTLE): The Mapped Proposal

The imminently feasible option for extending Link to the heart of Tacoma is outlined in my plan, the Central Tacoma Link Extension (CTLE). The proposal details a Link alignment superior to the current Sound Transit effort to terminate the line at Tacoma Dome Station. Instead of a route that requires overly complex engineering and civil structures to serve only a transit facility tailored to the suburbs, this is a plan that sensibly brings trains to Downtown Tacoma on a simplified alignment.

A map showing transit routes through Tacoma with lines identified by different colors.
The proposed Central Tacoma Extension is indicated in red on the above map. The current alignment, which is absent from the city center, is indicated by blue. The Sounder commuter rail and other connecting buses are indicated with addition colors. The ArcGIS interactive map with key may be viewed online. (Map by author)

The CTLE is classical railway infrastructure design. Indeed, the alignment proposed here is a modern refinement of the Puget Sound Electric Railway, otherwise known as the Seattle-Tacoma Interurban. This was a tried-and-true passenger railway designed by Golden Age railroad professionals that efficiently served Tacoma for decades—and which never should have been dismantled. 

The trackways of the CTLE feature strict separation from vehicular traffic on wide roadways. The prototype of the at-grade sections can already be found on Pacific Avenue itself, as well as in the Rainier Valley. The CTLE also takes advantage of existing rail rights-of-way, inclusive of existing T Line infrastructure (Tacoma’s existing streetcar system) through Union Station. This will not impair T Line operations and instead will complement them. The two systems’ differing DC electrical voltages are resolved in a straightforward manner by dual mode technologies and related design solutions. This shared trackage provides for the real prize of this proposal: securing rail access to UWT / Union Station and its many community and transit connections. 

Link trains are then sent north toward Downtown and Central Tacoma Station, after which they are turned around on a balloon loop. The two track station and loop allows for a less disruptive single-track alignment in a sensitive area of Downtown and streamlines rail operations.

Unless Tacoma was able to fund a tunneling effort somewhere downtown—which it probably could not afford and really does not need—or acquiesced to a complex aerial alignment into its core, rail services do not get much better than what has been proposed and mapped here.

The Costs: Real and Opportunity

This approximately 1.85-mile extension proposal would cost at least two-hundred-million additional dollars to construct on top of cost estimates for the Tacoma Dome Link Extension (a rough estimate developed from present Hilltop Extension costs). Conversely, potential cost savings are obtained over preferred Sound Transit alignments by simplifying the western approach into the City via the Pacific Highway and Puyallup Avenue. The deletion of East Tacoma Station, too, could further reduce costs, considering the limited TOD and transit connection potential there.

For people who believe that the T streetcar line already serves the CTLE corridor effectively, the value of this extension would be limited or even detrimental. To be clear, there are real physical and monetary costs to constructing this largely at-grade extension into Tacoma’s city center. The potential benefits of the CTLE, however, could not be clearer to those who value a comprehensive rail system that does not unnecessarily impose transfers, nor avoid essential urban destinations wholesale.

The benefits, altogether, lend the proposal more merit than other costly alignment deviations and rail connections under consideration by Sound Transit today. Tacoma deserves more than what it will receive from TDLE, and time is running out to change course. From here, I’ll let my plan speak for itself. Please review my blog piece for more technical details on this proposal.

Central Tacoma Link Extension (CTLE) Project Maps

  1. ArcGIS Interactive Map, detailing the whole of the CTLE project on a viewer-friendly map.

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Troy Serad is a site development engineer with a background in land surveying, cartography and urban planning. Throughout his career, Troy's contributions have helped advance many critical transportation infrastructure projects across the Puget Sound region, from Hilltop Link Extension to Madison Street BRT. Along with six years of experience in local passenger rail operations, he brings a unique and holistic perspective to transportation planning. Troy is also currently an appointed member of the Transportation Commission of the City of Tacoma, where he is also a resident.

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Seth

Right on! Yes. Let’s focus on coherent transit that delivers people where they want to go for the next few centuries (hint: it ain’t the Tacoma Dome or the mall.) Do we need to get so lost in the details of bringing light rail into the city that we just give up and leave people stranded out at the Tacoma Dome? No. Do we need to burn billions on deep tunnels like Seattle? No. But let’s not get lost and just build things wrong because it was a bit harder to do it right.

Anne

Great article. I never understood why the light rail expansion to/ in Tacoma is so limited. That cute streetcar is nice but of course no replacement for light rail.

A comment regarding the comparison light rail vs Sounder. I like the sounder but basically, it runs never. It is only an option for 9-5 weekday workers and that only in 1 direction (Tacoma to Seattle). If yes it would run like a decent intercity say twice an hour it becomes a serious alternative. Which I by the way would welcome.

Tony Krebs

Being a Seattlite who increasingly has friends living in Tacoma, this proposal makes so much common sense for knitting together two of the region’s largest urban areas together and taking cars off of I-5.

Beyond the hassle of uncoordinated transfers at Tacoma Dome Station, one big disincentive you don’t mention is the lack of a feeling of safety that the Tacoma Dome neighborhood exudes when one is waiting for a transfer at odd times of day and night in a virtually deserted cityscape.

What’s most missing, though, from this article is: what’s the next step? You hint that the opportunity window is short, but don’t specify what that timeline is. Like the historic fight for preserving Seattle’s Pike Place Market, it’ll likely take some major community organizing and key stakeholder buy-in to change an infrastructure plan that already has a significant bureaucratic inertia of its own.

Carl Allen

I like this idea jn theory, but there also seem to be some problems.

Almost 2 miles of at-grade track (shared with streetcars no less) seems problematic. I can imagine this causing far reaching delays on the entire line.

My 2nd concern is the placement of the final station, at hard to reach corner of downtown. (Half the walk radius is taken up by a bluff??)

I understand that this is a budget conscious proposal. But if the purpose of the proposal is to bring trains into downtown Tacoma, then it’s 100% worthwhile to do it right. Grade separate the track and put the final station in a more thoughtful location.

Troy A Serad

Carl, thank you for the comments. A few points:

1. The Union Station and Central Tacoma stops literally have the finest existing and potential walksheds of all stations on the Link line south of Seattle. It flies in the face of reason that critics of these downtown railway stops—especially Central Tacoma right off the core of the city—would then advocate for a $3.5 billion dollar megaproject rail line to end at Tacoma Dome Station. TDS has virtually zero walkshed now and limited potential in the future. Tacoma’s geography is challenging, this is true, but perfect cannot be the enemy of the great. Central Tacoma Station would be virtually right in Downtown, has the best value out of all alternatives, and it is least disruptive to the city.

2. As the article states, there are real physical impacts to arise from building this street-running rail line. However, this is a light rail system at its terminus—as in the ideal technology and location for such street operations. Note, too, that the rail line is separated from vehicular traffic, and the balloon loop could be expanded to allow for a larger section of less disruptive single-track (but with an increase in mileage cost).

3. The integration between streetcar and Link is actually rather straightforward and “simple”, unlike the declarations of some who have commented elsewhere. There is no major power restructuring, no guage changes, the vehicle envelopes are very similar, same level boarding, etc. The reconstruction needed along Pacific to host two tracks and a larger platform is the real hurdle, not integration. The shared section of trackage is intentionally kept short so that integration is minimized. That integration also takes place at a mandatory through-station stop, which is simplying for operations. Track capacity is plentiful for sequential, one-directional trains.

This proposal achieves minimum curve radiuses for Link Light Rail (or better). The two systems can integrate.

Carl Allen

A the end of the day, I agree “good” is better than “perfect” and I’d rather see this built than what’s currently proposed. Thanks for the reply.

Shane Johnson

As a South Hill resident, I look at the efforts of Sound Transit as a huge joke. We should have already had extended light rail replace heavy rail in all areas. No more reliance on BN rail. Our own dedicated transit corridors for east side residents with light rail trains spoking off to Buckley, Kent East Hill, Renton Highlands, Bellevue/Issaquah, etc. Look at all the communities not properly served right now.

For example, a simple addition of a light rail line from the Tacoma Dome up and down Hwy 7 into Spanaway, with bus extensions from South Hill’s Meridian 176th and 128th streets to Hwy 7 would allow better spoke/transit ties than exists currently. Replace those busses with light rail. Add light rail to Meridian all the way from Graham 200th into Federal Way thru Edgewood.

As it sits, right now to get anywhere it’s best to use a hybrid car.

Eric

Let’s consider the lunacy of the journey foisted on public transit users: after riding at least 80 minutes from Capitol Hill or Downtown Seattle in order to reach Tacoma…

This sort of highlights why prioritizing “the spine” above all else was kind of a dumb idea on the part of the Sound Transit board. Light rail just isn’t a great tool for enabling trips along such long distances. The current Sounder service has a scheduled running time of 62 minutes between Tacoma and downtown Seattle, and the 594 express bus takes 52 minutes per the schedule. Link will take traffic out of the equation compared to the bus, but if it takes 30 minutes longer at low-traffic times will people really believe it’s an upgrade?

Brendan

I’m a Tacoma resident and I largely agree with this – I think we’d have been better served by increased Sounder and Bus service, along with operational improvements. The light rail is going to be a bit slower than the Sounder during rush hour, and much slower than the bus outside of rush hour. Meanwhile it has less comfortable seats and less cargo space than either the Sounder or the express bus. The Sounder even has a bathroom.

jas

Correct me if I’m wrong, but I thought Tacoma’s desire for LINK was more about a regular, traffic free connection to the airport to increase Tacoma’s ability to attract new business, than it was about commuting to Seattle. If this is true then it makes even more sense to take LINK into the heart of downtown Tacoma. As for commuting – IMO LINK to Seattle is too long, and any commuter is better off taking Sounder.

NickBob

I agree with this idea in spirit, but I think the approach suggested here is less feasible than it seems. There are bigger differences in the equipment used on the two lines than just the voltage. The trains running on T-Link are 66′ long and have a minimum turn radius of 59′. The trains running on Line 1 are 400′ long and have a minimum turn radius of 82′. The larger turn radius of the Siemens trains likely means those trains would be unable to make a 90 degree turn within the existing roadways of downtown Tacoma. All that aside – my bigger concern is that we really shouldn’t be thinking about adding any additional at-grade segments to this system. The Rainier Valley segment is responsible for nearly all major delays, and will forever be a constraint on the system for both speed and headways – and I say that as a Rainier Valley resident and daily rider. In ST3 Sound Transit more or less committed to not designing segments like that anymore. I do agree that a forced transfer at Tacoma Dome is a bad design, but I don’t think a “cost-effective” extension to downtown Tacoma is worth decreasing reliability on the whole system.

asdf2

Hmmm…

well, there is an intermediate option that’s almost as good.

If the two trains can stop right next to each other at Tacoma Dome Station, the streetcar train can leave right after the Seattle train arrives, so the transfer becomes as quick and easy as humanly possibly – just walk 10 feet across the platform and go. This would be kind of similar to how transfers worked at Pioneer Square Station during the construction work in January 2020.

Unfortunately, the timed connection is probably not feasible northbound (it would adversely impact reliability of the entire system and cause train bunching in Seattle), but a timed connect southbound is a whole lot better than no timed connection at all.

Troy A Serad

I appreciate the comment, and know that I am very sensitive to its concerns. I want to direct you to the blog piece linked at the end of the article, which is far more technical than this article and addresses many of the concerns you raised.

asdf2

You would think it wouldn’t be that hard to design things so the train from Seattle could just roll through to downtown Tacoma on the streetcar tracks (replacing the streetcar). Are there major technical issues I’m not aware of (e.g. different rail gauges) that would prevent this?

If it’s simply an issue of station platforms not being long enough, that seems solvable.

Troy A Serad

The approach down Puyallup Avenue is required to get trains onto the existing streetcar line, and shared infrastructure thereafter is *technically* feasible with some substantial modifications, especially along Commerce Street.

But the question here is how much risk do you want to add to the Link system? Where would trains terminate: UWT, Commerce Street or somewhere else? How would they reorient for northbound service in contested urban space? How are these essential operations impacted by frequent buses and streetcars, and vice versa? Is there any additional track capacity for the storage of trains to either address bunching or major events? The answers, I found, were not conducive to extended track sharing, and this CTLE proposal attempts to find a middle ground.

Still, all alternatives are worthy of study.

Preston

I agree with having the 1 Line take over the current streetcar tracks into downtown, and having the Hilltop extension transfer in downtown. Give Link exclusive right of way on Commerce, lengthen the platforms at Tacoma Dome, Union Station, and Theater District, and close the remaining stations.

Theaceae

Yes, Yes! I’ve been trying to raise this discussion for years, or at the very least, why it was never even considered for study, yet running a train out to the mall area was. Sure, the Tacoma Mall has the second fastest growing RGC in the city, but the first just happens to be in the downtown core. Tacoma wants to bring people to Tacoma for jobs, and the revitalized downtown core is a whole lot closer to realizing this goal, having greater pre-established infrastructure and office space, with new developments on the rise.

The vision here is appealing because it is significantly lower cost than what I like to imagine, but ideally, I would like alignment to run from TD, west down Puyallup Ave, North onto market St, with a station about parallel with Union Station(between 21st and 19th), providing a handy connection to The Upper campus area of UWT and the future BRT 1 Line; then continue north to have another station situated somewhere near St Helens neighborhood and Tacoma Ave/7th, providing walkable connections to The upper portion of the Theater District, The Pierce County Courthouse, the Main Library, An expanding Technical school, and the ever-revitalizing Wright Park area. Terminating here would also provide potential future expansion out to 6th Ave, which is currently one of Tacoma’s highest ridership transit corridors, outside of the BRT study zones.

None of these ideas will ever see the light of day if the TDLE continues down a 25th ST alignment as it’s currently preferred. Puyallup Ave alignment is my preference, but there are obviously better choices to be had that I felt like haven’t even been considered previously.

jas

ST prefers to place its stations where people don’t really want to go, and will take the easy way out every time while giving lip service to ‘serving the community’. It will see Tacoma link as good enough even though your alignment is vastly superior for the rider experience. I hope you can get someone at Tacoma or ST thinking about this enough to get some action on it though.

tacomee

I’m not sure you can blame ST leadership entirely…. the Tacoma government and business leaders had a plan. 1. build White collar jobs in downtown. 2. Use the cute little train to “redevelop” the Hilltop for condos for those white collar workers, (pushing out the lower income residents currently living there). Is it light rail? Nope. I call it White rail.