A streetcar vehicle rolls into a maintenance barn in Tacoma's facility.
The new T Line streetcar vehicles will spend a bit longer in the barn before going out on revenue service given the delay announced in December. (Sound Transit)

The Hilltop extension of Tacoma’s T Line streetcar will not be opening in the first quarter of 2023 as planned due to construction defects, Sound Transit revealed today. The exact length of the delay is not known and the exact nature of the “quality issues” was not revealed, but Sound Transit CEO Julie Timm said the agency still expects to open the project some time in 2023.

The project had been slated to open in May 2022, but Sound Transit announced in February that construction delays and issues procuring new streetcar vehicles had delayed the timeline, resulting in the new Q1 2023 target. The agency’s contractor, Walsh Construction, appears to have dropped the ball on multiple fronts, delivering the project both behind schedule and with significant quality issues that have caused further delay.

Sound Transit Board Chair Kent Keel expressed his frustration at the delay and urged agency staff to provide greater detail on exactly what the quality issues were. That information was not forthcoming at the meeting, but Timm did publish a blogpost later in the afternoon that filled in some details. Apparently, imprecise track geometry dealt the final blow that delayed the project, although other construction issues also played a role by eating into schedule cushion.

Map shows the Tacoma Link Hilltop Extension alignment and stations. (Credit: Sound Transit)

“Over the past few months, our construction management and inspections teams identified and solved several quality issues on the Hilltop project. While successful, that work cumulatively depleted our schedule cushion,” Timm wrote. “Then last week during systems testing and final inspections in preparation for service, we identified a new issue regarding the track geometry in one section of the extension. We’re bringing in track experts this week to provide an independent assessment of the issue and possible corrective actions for evaluation.”

The agency’s new CEO said her team wanted to be more transparent and not bury bad news, as had become a bit of a custom under predecessor Peter Rogoff.

“This is an emerging concern, and we don’t have all the answers yet on how it will affect Hilltop’s opening timeline,” Timm wrote. “But our commitment to transparency and ‘no surprises’ means sharing what we know as soon as possible, and you can expect an update soon when we learn more.”

Urbanist contributor Kevin Le provided a users guide for the 2.4-mile streetcar extension that will be handy once it does finally open. The extension will add six stations and relocate the existing Theater District station northward to Old City Hall. The line will run every 10 minutes during the day and add between 2,000 and 4,000 daily boardings by 2026, the agency projects.

The Hilltop project includes an expansion of the Operations and Maintenance Facility in Tacoma. (Sound Transit)

T Line Extension to Tacoma Community College

The Sound Transit 3 (ST3) package passed in 2016 also funded a 3.5-mile extension of the line out to Tacoma Community College via S 19th Street. That project has also been under schedule pressure, but could open in 2039 if Sound Transit succeeds in closing its affordability gap that emerged during the pandemic, stemming largely from cost control issues. Tacoma’s streetcar line will reach eight miles in total length once that extension is completed.

In March 2022, Sound Transit received a belated shipment of new streetcar vehicles from manufacturer Brookville. (Sound Transit)

On the project website, the agency reports it is “managing the TCC Tacoma Link Extension project toward a 2039 delivery target by working to close a project affordability gap most recently forecasted at $20 million… If it is not possible to close the gap, current financial assumptions reflect Sound Transit’s ability to affordably open TCC Tacoma Link service in 2041.”

Other project delays

Sound Transit also provided updates on other rail projects delays on Thursday. An East Link starter line on the Eastside could open in spring 2024, the agency said, but doing so would push an already delayed Lynnwood Link’s opening back another quarter to late 2024. This could prove controversial, trading one delay for another.

A Sound Transit slide notes the implication of an early opening of East Link on the Eastside as construction defects along I-90 are addressed. (Sound Transit)

To make the spring of 2024 opening for the starter line, the full Sound Transit Board will need to make a decision on the Eastside starter line in January, because there will be 13 to 15 months of mandatory regulatory processes before such a line could open. The board did not make any final decisions thus far. (Christopher Randels will have more on East Link news in a follow-up article, so watch for that.)

Sound Transit CEO Julie Timm delivered the delay news via a video and blogpost, in addition to her briefing to the System Expansions Committee.

The agency has not been able to tie down the length of delay that Federal Way Link is facing, and is still in negotiations with the contractor. Sequencing all the projects will be a delicate dance as Sound Transit staff said there must be about six months between light rail project openings to allow for pre-revenue service and testing on each separate extension project.

This article was updated after CEO Timm publisher her post with additional details about the T Line issues. Check out Randels’ piece for more on East Link and project sequencing.

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Doug Trumm is publisher of The Urbanist. An Urbanist writer since 2015, he dreams of pedestrianizing streets, blanketing the city in bus lanes, and unleashing a mass timber building spree to end the affordable housing shortage and avert our coming climate catastrophe. He graduated from the Evans School of Public Policy and Governance at the University of Washington in 2019. He lives in East Fremont and loves to explore the city on his bike.