A Link to Tacoma's future…and past

It’s often said that history repeats itself. That will be the case this Friday when Sound Transit officially launches the $80.4 million Tacoma Link light rail system, which will provide free transportation via electric streetcars between downtown and Tacoma Dome Station.

The sight and sounds of Link vehicles traversing the 1.6-mile course during recent test runs is new for most Tacomans. For those old enough to remember, however, this marks the return of electric streetcars to Tacoma for the first time in over 65 years.

Tacoma Municipal Street Railway originally began streetcar service between downtown Tacoma and the tideflats on Jan. 2, 1919, mainly so that workers could reach their jobs in the shipyards and other industries. Passenger service was also provided, but it continuously lost money.

The Tacoma Municipal Street Railway, which became the Tacoma Municipal Belt Line in 1925, operated electric trolleys to move people and electric locomotives to move freight.

As the switching business grew and the passenger business shrank, the trolleys interfered with locomotives.

Streetcars were finally phased out in May 1938, when the Belt Line replaced them with buses built by Tacoma’s White Company.

Today, Tacoma is part of a trend of electric streetcars making a comeback after virtually disappearing from America nearly half-a-century ago. Electric streetcars are enjoying a strong resurgence in urban transit centers in many cities, including Tacoma’s Northwest neighbor, Portland, Ore., where Portland Streetcar, Inc. has been operating a 4.6-mile line since 2001.

Officials from cities across the nation see light rail – with its short distance and frequent stops in urban centers – as an integral part of redevelopment, a word which describes Tacoma’s recent downtown renaissance.

“Distance is not the issue,” said Lee Somerstein, Sound Transit media relations. “Connecting people is what’s important.”

Link light rail provides a convenient way to get to Tacoma Dome Station, Somerstein pointed out, a transportation hub for Tacoma and Pierce County that offers an array of options, including express and local bus service, interstate bus service and commuter and light rail.

“You could virtually get on (Link) in downtown to Tacoma Dome Station and go anywhere in the world,” Somerstein said.

Sound Transit officials are very excited about this Friday’s first run of Link light rail, he said, and the accompanying celebration.

“It’s going to be a great party for the City of Tacoma,” Somerstein said.

If you would like to attend, here’s some helpful information:

– Tacoma Link light rail will celebrate its inaugural run beginning at 10 a.m., Friday, Aug. 22, at Tacoma Dome Station, 423 E. 25th St. Opening ceremonies will include a blessing by Connie McCloud of the Puyallup Indian Tribe and an invocation by Major Thomas Morrow, corps officer, Salvation Army Tacoma Citadel/Corps. Ron Sims, Sound Transit Board Chair and King County Executive, will serve as master of ceremonies. Speakers will include politicians and other officials. John Ladenburg, vice chair, Sound Transit Board and Pierce County Executive, will make closing remarks. Refreshments will be available.

– Streetcar rides begin at noon and last until 10 p.m. Before noon, inaugural rides will carry public officials and winners of 100 promotional tickets.

– Closing ceremonies will start at 7 p.m., at Theater Square on Broadway, between South 9th and 11th streets. Kevin Phelps, Sound Transit Boardmember and a member of the Tacoma City Council, will serve as master of ceremonies. There will be guest speakers and a surprise entertainer.

– There will be a variety of musical performances throughout the day.

– There will be additional entertain-ment next to the Tacoma Link stations, including “mobile hot shop” glass blowing and the Tacoma Youth Symphony.

For more information, please go to Sound Transit’s Website at:

Historical information courtesy of WashingtonHistoryLink.org.

Nov. 5, 1996: Voters approve funding for Sound Transit to provide regional transportation improvements – including Tacoma Link light rail.

Dec. 11, 2001: The first section of track for Link light rail (construction began in spring) is placed.

April 9, 2002: The massive power substation – which houses two independent units that supply direct current for the light rail vehicles – is put into position.

Sept. 3, 2002: The three Link streetcars, having arrived over the Labor Day weekend, are off-loaded at the Port of Tacoma. The vehicles are built by Skoda Dopravini Technica in the Czech Republic.

April 7, 2003: The final section of track is welded into place at the intersection of Pacific Avenue and 17th Street.

June 18, 2003: Sound Transit conducts the first public run of a Link streetcar in Tacoma during an initial system-wide test.

Aug. 5, 2003: Okay, it’s not a highlight, but Tacoma Link has its first scrape with another vehicle, when a truck illegally parked between tracks hits a streetcar after it was driven off the tracks and attempted a turn.

Aug. 22, 2003: Sound Transit celebrates the first public run of Link light rail.