Alternative Light Rail Alignments Into Downtown Tacoma: A Mapped Review

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The current Sound Transit "T" streetcar line in Downtown Tacoma. (Credit: Sounder Bruce, Creative Commons)

My initial Central Tacoma Link Extension (CTLE) surface alignment proposal stirred a large debate regarding how Link light rail should properly serve Tacoma over a decade from now. Among commentators, there was broad agreement that terminating light rail service at Tacoma Dome Station was deeply unsatisfactory, with most agreeing that light rail should reach Downtown Tacoma. Sound Transit is aiming to open the Tacoma Dome Link Extension in 2032.

However, there were also legitimate concerns voiced about how to accomplish getting light rail into Downtown Tacoma. Where the surface CTLE came under routine fire was on two fronts: its interaction with the existing streetcar system, and the location of the Central Tacoma Station. Although these points are discussed in the proposal, they are real concerns that warrant further investigation. The CTLE surface option remains the cheapest and most cost effective manner of delivering trains into Central Tacoma. That station, even without extensive bus connections, has independent utility as a rail station in an urban core.

Still, it is worthy to consider alternative alignments into Tacoma that: one, have no impacts on the existing streetcar system; two, more finely integrate Link with the existing Downtown transit corridor along Commerce Street; and three, further the conversation of getting trains into the city center. 

A map of a proposed Downtown Tacoma transit station shows possible bus connections on major thoroughfares such as Commerce and Market Streets.
Map showing potential transit connections from a Downtown Tacoma Transit Station. (Map by author)

A preliminary review of alternative alignments into Downtown Tacoma produced three distinct alignments, whose components could be mixed to produce a larger variety of routing options. The first option is the original surface alignment. The three new alignments include moderate tunneling or elevated segments. It’s worth noting that the impacted areas are predominantly surface parking lots, a wide avenue, or the margins of a freeway, all of which should dramatically reduce construction costs relative to other large rail projects through a developed urban quarter. All three proposed light rail alignments can be viewed on an interactive ArcGIS map. This article will also assess the alignments’ strengths and weaknesses, as well as make the cost-benefit argument for investing in light rail for Downtown Tacoma rather than an extension to the Tacoma Mall.

A map of Tacoma showing potential light rail alignments going into the center of the city.
Explore the interactive ArcGIS map to see compare the alignment alternatives for bringing light rail into Downtown Tacoma. (Map by author)

Interbay in Flux – Projects to Watch in 2022

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Brownfield remediation is underway at the site of the Time Oil Co. petroleum terminal site near the Ballard Locks. (Ray Dubicki)

Since the smaller of Seattle’s industrial areas is squeezed between three of the city’s richest neighborhoods, Interbay’s future is deeply uncertain. Development pressures are flipping industrial sites to big box retail. Recent closures cut into the local maritime community. Proposals for changing the local transportation network promise to add pollution and damage neighborhoods at extreme expense.

On the ground, the picture is much more complex. People are working, shops are open, and individual sites are being developed. In the next year, the work happening on several of those developments is going to give a picture of what the future of Interbay looks like. Unfortunately, it’s a mixed bag. Rehabilitation and remediation promises to provide thousands of square feet of manufacturing and employment space. At the same time, other properties are being converted to big box and mini-storage. Here are four projects to pay attention to over the next year.

Three Lawmakers Say Their Constituents Should Get a Free Pass on Blocking Seattle Crosswalks and Transit Lanes

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Three people biking and two pedestrians wait for a long line of cars queuing on Mercer Street in South Lake Union.
Evening commute.  Cyclists and pedestrians are traveling out of downtown but first they need to get across Mercer.  (Photo: Mark Ostrow)

Some motorists think they should be above the law

Automatic traffic cameras are being installed in eight Seattle locations and three state legislators are “crying foul” and fretting over expected impacts to their constituents. Senator Kevin Van De Wege (D-Sequim) posted a press release on his webpage stating the trio of lawmakers is “uneasy that their constituents and other visitors to Seattle might unknowingly be recorded on camera violating a new law unlike any traffic laws outside the city limits.”

In fact, it’s illegal to block a crosswalk or intersection, or drive in transit lanes by state law. However, it may be true that Seattle is one of the few jurisdictions actively working to enforce these traffic laws. And for this, the trio of lawmakers — who voted against the bill authorizing pilot program of automatic camera enforcement back in Spring 2020 — think they should get extra warning and dispensation. Already the law comes with a warning for the first infraction; after the warning, subsequent infractions come with a relatively modest $75.

“Seattle has every right to enforce its traffic laws, but people need fair warning,” said press release co-signatory Senator Lisa Wellman (D-Mercer Island) in a statement. “You can’t just approve a law that doesn’t exist in any other community in the state and expect people to magically know that the rules are very different when they drive into Seattle.”

The dissenting lawmakers acknowledge Seattle’s education and signage efforts before dismissing their effectiveness. Representative Mike Chapman (D-Port Angeles) also signed on to the press release and seemed to argue blocking crosswalks is par for the course on the Olympic Peninsula and that being expected to read signs was too much to ask.

“When I’m driving, and I don’t think I’m that different from a lot of my constituents, I’m watching the road and other cars,” Chapman said in a statement. “I’m not looking at signs unless I’m searching for a particular street sign to make a turn. My constituents are good, law-abiding people, but it’s hard to obey a law you’ve never heard about. Traffic laws are typically uniform from community to community, but this isn’t a law anywhere else in the state.”

While traffic signs are indecipherable, traffic congestion apparently is a foreign concept outside of Seattle.

“You see traffic in Seattle that you just don’t see in our rural 24th District,” Van De Wege said in a statement. “Traffic doesn’t suddenly stop dead at intersections in our communities the way it can in Seattle.”

Lynnwood’s City Center: Transforming Strip Malls into a Dense Urban Neighborhood

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A rendering of residential and commercial buildings surrounding a town square.
(Credit: Merlone Geier Partners)

Like many suburban American cities that saw major growth in the second half of the 20th century, Lynnwood lacks a defined central commercial area. Businesses are grouped instead as strip malls along busy thoroughfares like 196th Street SW and Alderwood Mall Boulevard, which is a frontage road for Interstate 5. Lynnwood’s urban form reflects the early influence of major roadways, first State Road 99 (Pacific Highway) and later the I-5 freeway, whose introduction sliced the nascent city in half, but also served as an important catalyst for growth, especially in the development of 130-acre Alderwood Mall, completed in the late 1970s.

A visit to current-day Lynnwood reveals a suburban mix-tape of wide roads, strip malls with oversized parking lots, tracts of single family housing ranging from modest to McMansion in proportions, neighborhood parks, clusters of apartment buildings, and even a few trailer parks. However, with the Lynnwood Link light rail station slated to open in 2024, the city is being reshaped again by a major transportation project. This time around, city leaders and planners hope to harness the opportunity to create walkable, mixed-use neighborhoods located near transit and the regional Interurban multi-use trail.

The current “City Center” in Lynnwood is a multifamily apartment building across from the Lynnwood Conference Center and Interstate 5. (Credit: Google Maps)

Doing so will be a heavy lift, but with 500 homes already built or under construction, 1,400 more homes approved, and over 500,000 square feet of office and 200,000 square feet of retail planned, Lynnwood’s City Center stands a chance of becoming a thriving, transit-connected downtown in the coming years.

The City of Lynnwood first began its efforts to develop a city center back in the 2000s. However, the Great Recession put those plans on hold — something the City planning staff now view a blessing in disguise as the delay provided for the opportunity to upgrade plans to better accommodate the arrival of Link light rail, approved by voters in the Sound Transit 2 ballot initiative in 2008. News that light rail would be coming to Lynnwood prompted the City to shift away from plans for promoting office space in the City Center and toward mixed-use development.

Since then, the City of Lynnwood has identified two areas for future dense development: the City Center, which will be adjacent to the Lynnwood Station, and the Alderwood Mall, which will be connected to light rail by buses and the Interurban Trail. A future extension will also add a light rail station at the Alderwood Mall.

A map of the City Center and Alderwood mall targeted for urban growth in Lynnwood.
A map showing the two areas of Lynnwood targeted for urban growth with the arrival of light rail. (Credit: City of Lynnwood)

This article will take a close look at the City Center, where private development projects are already in the works, most notably Northline Village, a 19 acre mixed-use private development. Additionally, a two-acre site owned by Sound Transit, directly adjacent to light rail, has been identified for development, creating opportunity for affordable housing. The agency recently opened up a survey calling for public feedback on the site, which I will dive into later.

Pierce Transit Launches New Battery-Electric Buses Into Service

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Mock-up of Pierce Transit battery-electric buses with special liveries. (Credit: Pierce Transit)

New battery-electric buses (BEBs) will start appearing on Pierce Transit routes, the agency has announced today, just in time for the holidays. Six new BEBs will begin service on about a dozen different routes, joining the three BEBs that the agency already has on hand.

“These buses are a continuation of our desire to become carbon neutral as soon as possible,” Pierce Transit’s CEO Mike Griffus said in a statement. “One of our goals as a transit agency is to help combat climate change and we are exploring all initiatives to achieve that goal. A side benefit is to help diversify our fleet in the unlikely event of supply line failures.”

The new BEBs were purchased from Gillig, a major American bus manufacturer, this year using funds made available from the Washington State Department of Ecology’s Air Pollution Control Account (three buses) and Volkswagen Clean Air Act settlement (three buses). All six vehicles are 40-foot low-floor buses and can run about 150 to 170 miles on a single charge. The buses are similar in appearance to other 40-foot Gilligs in the agency fleet, but will feature a special blue electric bus wrap to highlight the greener technology.

Since the new vehicles are similar to other Gilligs already in service, Pierce Transit expects to realize savings in training and maintenance costs. In fact, the BEBs have 30% fewer parts, so that should make a big dent in cost savings.

Midweek Video: Why Amsterdam Has No Garbage Day

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Amsterdam’s approach to waste and recycle collection differs greatly from the North American one. Not Just Bikes shows how waste and recycle is collected underground at regular intervals within neighborhoods and picked up as needed by crews.

Seattle’s State Transportation Priorities for 2022: Pedestrian Streets and Freeway Removal

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Seattle will ask the state legislature for authority to designate pedestrian zones. (Photo: The Urbanist)

Every year in advance of the state legislature convening for its new session, cities around the state update their agenda. The Washington State legislature’s 2022 session will be short next year, with just 60 days to advance any legislation that didn’t pass during the 2021 long session or introduce new bills. But updating the legislative agenda is a good way to look at the overall shared goals which elected leaders have articulated that they’d like to accomplish. The City of Seattle has released its draft legislative agenda, and the areas where the document has changed since last year will likely yield the most insight into city’s current priorities. Here’s a look at those priorities in the area of transportation.

Increased Pedestrian Infrastructure

Seattle’s 2021 legislative agenda called out a need for safety improvements in the transportation realm, particularly for people who are walking, biking, and rolling. But the 2022 agenda is more specific in what the city sees as leading to improvements in that area. Not surprisingly, the City is on record in support of expanding the pilot transit lane and block-the-box enforcement camera program, currently set to expire after the 2023 session without action from the legislature. Currently Seattle is only able to install 20 block-the-box cameras and transit lane cameras along a small number of specific corridors. It’s not clear at this point if Seattle’s delay in widely deploying cameras until nearly a year and a half after it received the authority may impact its chances for renewal, but 2022 will see those cameras added to intersections and transit lanes around greater downtown.

The updated agenda reads:

“We support efforts to improve transportation safety, particularly for vulnerable users such as bicyclists and pedestrians, including increased local authority to designate pedestrian zones and set speed limits. We recognize that a complete sidewalk network connected to reliable, frequent transit is the foundation of a sustainable, accessible and equitable city and therefore support policies that would fund the construction of missing sidewalks and safe and accessible crossings, and ensure these essential transportation facilities are maintained and accessible. We support expanded City authority for automated traffic camera enforcement.”

West Seattle High-Rise Bridge on Track to Reopen Mid 2022

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A photo of a high bridge made of a concrete with a roadway.
The West Seattle High-Rise Bridge will soon be covered by construction crews completing repair work. (Credit: Seattle Department of Transportation)

The West Seattle High-Rise Bridge will soon become a “very active construction site,” according to an update from the Seattle Department of Transportation (SDOT). As a whole, the repair of the High-Rise Bridge, which has been closed since March of 2020, continues to be on target for completion by June 30th, the date identified in the contract with Kraemer North America by which the bridge should be officially returned to the City’s control. At that point, SDOT will undertake safety testing for a few weeks before reopening the bridge to vehicle and bus traffic.

While SDOT has not identified any major hurdles to keeping on schedule, factors like inclement weather or pandemic induced global supply chain shortages could slow down progress in the coming months. However, at a press conference Monday SDOT Director Sam Zimbabwe emphasized that by having brought contractor Kraemer North America onboard early, the agency hopes to avoid any delays related to supply shortages.

A graphic showing the milestones toward completion of the West Seattle repair projects, which is now starting Phase 2, rehabilitation.
A graphic show the steps involved in the West Seattle High Bridge repair project. Progress has now moved to Phase 2, rehabilitation. (Credit: Seattle Department of Transportation)

This announcement comes roughly one year after Mayor Jenny Durkan declared that the City would pursue a repair option for the High-Rise Bridge, which before its emergency closure carried about 84,000 vehicles and 25,000 transit riders daily according to estimates from SDOT. While initially both repair and replace options were considered for the bridge, repair emerged as a preferred option after City consultant WSP said it would last for another 40 years or so, the expected lifetime of the structure. Zimbabwe pointed to how well the High-Rise Bridge has withstood both record breaking snowfall and heat since its closure as evidence the structure should hold up well after all repair work is accomplished. “We want this repair to last for the useful life of the bridge,” Zimbabwe said.

A screen shot of a Zoom call with nine participants.
Mayor Jenny Durkan and SDOT Director Sam Zimbabwe, upper right, provided updates on progress toward reopening the West Seattle Bridge on Zoom. (Photo by author)

The repair option was also deemed swifter to complete, an important consideration given the thousands of Seattle residents impacted by the closure. While Zimbabwe asserted that SDOT had followed a “very aggressive schedule” in its efforts to address the problem, impatience over the pace of work has surfaced at times.

In response to criticism, Mayor Durkan said she wished there had been more visibility of the phase one stabilization work, which was completed inside of the bridge, and thus away from public view. Additionally, Zimbabwe rejected the notion put forth by City Council candidate Kenneth Wilson, who lost to incumbent Teresa Mosqueda (Position 8 – citywide), that the bridge could be partially reopened to traffic during the next repair phase, stating that such an opening “would risk serious damage and a longer construction period.” As it stands, SDOT will reopen all lanes of traffic at the same time, once it’s been determined safe to do.

An important milestone, but lots of work ahead

During stabilization, or phase one of the project, work focused on the installation of post tensioning cables and anchor bolts. Carbon wire fibers were also wrapped around the structure, epoxy was injected into cracks, and a bearing was replaced at Pier 18.