Callaghan: Light rail a key piece of Tacoma's transportation puzzle

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It's easy to think that when Puget Sound-area voters approved a huge expansion of Sound Transit in 2008 — complete with an equally huge increase in taxes — that it was a more optimistic time. Surely, had people known that the economy was cratering into something that would become known as the Great Recession, they would have voted differently.

But what is easy to think is also wrong. In November 2008, when 58 percent of the region's voters approved Sound Transit Two with its half-cent sales-tax increase, the economy was already in bad shape. Stock markets were falling and the banking crisis was in full bloom.

No one knew how bad it would be. We knew, however, that it was bad. And yet a healthy majority took a leap of faith on a plan that wouldn't bear fruit for years, if not decades. Nearly six of 10 voted for expanded regional bus service, expanded Sounder transit centers, more Sounder trains, and extensions of light rail systems in Seattle, Bellevue and Tacoma. That was nearly four years ago, and we now know how bad the Great Recession was.

Differing views

On Aug. 22, in a gym at the People's Community Center on Tacoma's Hilltop, several dozen citizens decided to look forward anyway, reviewing six different ways LINK light rail could be expanded from its current downtown "L" connecting the Dome to the Theater District. Mark Martinez, who served on a stakeholders committee, liked an Eastside Corridor that would run up Portland Avenue to Salishan. It would serve a low-income area that is transit dependent but underserved.

Judy Fortier, a north downtown resident, didn't like any route that used Stadium Way. That street is too crowded and too noisy, she said. But Stadium Way — or parallel streets such as Broadway or St. Helens — is crucial to several proposed corridors. Once tracks reach the dense Stadium District, they could swing around toward the "medical mile" along Martin Luther King, Jr. Way and either up Sixth Avenue or toward the North End.

Another proposed route is the South End Corridor, which would climb Pacific Avenue to South 38th Street and then west toward the Tacoma Mall. The South Downtown Central Corridor would pass through the Brewery District before climbing the hillside toward Martin Luther King Jr. Way. The stakeholder committee thinks the routes that reach the hospitals, Sixth Avenue and the East Side are most in line with its main criteria: serving underserved communities, serving neighborhoods and fostering economic development.

A decision on a preferred corridor will come early next year. Construction is further off because funding is uncertain. What is expected to cost in the $150 million range has only half of that money assured — the amount allocated for LINK expansion out of the $2 billion that Pierce County projects can expect from the 2008 tax vote. The other half would have to come from the Federal Transit Authority, the City of Tacoma or even the Puyallup Tribe should the East Side Corridor — with its proximity to tribal casinos — be chosen.

Transit opponents will surely complain that the project is a waste of money and that cheaper forms of transit, such as buses on the street or Bus Rapid Transit in separated lanes, are more cost-effective. They have valid points of view, and alternative modes will be considered and might be chosen. But light rail is what voters approved when they voted for these projects and these taxes. Absent some change of direction from voters, Sound Transit needs to push ahead. LINK as it exists now doesn't do all that much to get people where they want to go or need to go. Expansion was always envisioned.

Besides, I'm not a roads guy or a transit guy. Absolutists seem more intent on winning arguments than solving problems. Like most folks, I'm an all-modes guy. Cars and roads and highways will be part of our transportation future, but so will buses and heavy rail and light rail.