A Vital Link: Tacoma celebrates D Street Overpass opening

If there were ever any doubts about the merits of the D Street Overpass project — with its two-year construction timeline that created a challenge for local businesses in the Dome District and on the tide flats, and a funding gap midway through the project that placed its completion in doubt — they were likely quieted June 25 when city, county, and state leaders gathered atop the overpass to celebrate its opening.

As one elected official or transportation executive after another made his or her way to a podium to speak about the project, their voices competed with the heavy rumble and blaring horns of rail freight traffic being hauled way from the Port of Tacoma, around a curve at the south end of Thea Foss Waterway, and out of the city.

Still, almost magically, all of it appeared to be happening out of the way, somewhere else — neatly tucked beneath the $24.5 million overpass project.

The project, which began in May 2006 and was completed earlier this month, serves many purposes: it separates rail traffic from vehicles and pedestrians; it reconfigures the tracks so trains can take the curve around Foss Waterway and out of the city at a slightly higher clip (especially with cars and people out of the way); and it creates a bike and pedestrian link between the Dome District (a hub for Sound Transit, Pierce Transit, and Greyhound) and Thea Foss Waterway and Dock Street (a hub for many Tacoma residents and small businesses, as well as an esplanade and parks).

The project gathered funding from a variety of sources: Burlington Northern Santa Fe Railway; Economic Development Administration; Federal Highway Administration; Fast Corridor Partnership; Freight Mobility Strategic Investment Board; Port of Tacoma; Puget Sound Regional Council; Sound Transit; Transportation Improvement Board; and Union Pacific.

On Wednesday, civic leaders gathered to comment on the project, its funding challenges, and its impact on Tacoma’s economic vitality.

1. Jim Kastama, Senator (D-Puyallup)

Collaboration, of which this is a great example, will become even more important in the future when it comes to transportation projects. I say this because as the dollar has gone down, it has made Washington State more competitive. Our exports have increased from $35 billion to $67 billion within a year. Our reliance on facilities like the Port of Tacoma will increase and help us economically. At the same time, as the dollar has gone down, the price of gas has gone up. As gas goes up, the consumption goes down and fewer higher mileage vehicles are purchased. What that translates into for us is less revenue because we rely on the gas tax revenue. There are all kinds of ironies in it. We need that revenue to build projects like this so we can remain competitive. At the same time, those revenues will be going down. That’s why collaboration will be key in the future — bringing people together and prioritizing the projects that a community wants and needs.

2. Clare Petrich, Commissioner, Port of Tacoma

Thank goodness this overpass is open! Thank goodness it’s open in time for Tall Ships 2008! It’s a project that has been a long, long time in the making. This project helps not only the port, [but also] businesses along D Street — and I am one of those [businesses]. There are businesses at the other end of D Street, and I’m one of them because I have my office down [near] the Murray Morgan Bridge. When the Murray Morgan Bridge closed [last year], construction was going on at this particular [project] — we were basically landlocked. Again, thank goodness this is opening. I used to drive up and down this road all the time. I used to watch people risking their lives climbing over the couplings on those trains to get to an event at the Tacoma Dome. It really means a lot to have this overpass in place, not only for people’s safety, but also for the freight that is coming out of the Port of Tacoma and Port of Seattle, and coming around this curve. The loosening of this curve, and the overpass that has been built, is basically tripling the amount of trade and freight that we can get through Tacoma and onto its final destination. We’re separating our motor traffic and train traffic, and revitalizing the Dome District with the opening of this overpass. Also, I want to thank the people who designed this overpass. I’m a bicycle rider. The sidewalks here are wide enough that bikes and pedestrians will be able to share them.

3. Bill Baarsma, Mayor, City of Tacoma

There was a time when there were doubts that [this project] might not [happen]. What a beautiful outcome today. As you can clearly see from this vantage point, the D Street serves as a major corridor for major rail and truck traffic. This project successfully separates train and motor traffic. This realignment of railroad tracks ease the curve around the end of the Thea Foss Waterway so train traffic can move at a higher speed. Automobile and freight traffic no longer have to wait for trains that previously blocked D Street. If you’ve had the same experiences I’ve had over the years, you just didn’t take D Street because more often than not, there was a train there. You couldn’t make it. Now you can. Another bonus is it creates a safe, reliable pedestrian connection between the Dome District and the Thea Foss Waterway Esplanade and parks. The overpass now has united the Dome District and Thea Foss Waterway. We have to sincerely thank the residents, workers and business owners in this area for their endless patience during the course of this project. It’s the city’s hope this overpass will help connect the Dome District and Foss businesses with longevity and prosperity.

4. Dennis Flannigan, U.S. State Representative (D-Tacoma)

I really want to thank Alfred’s Cafe and Johnny’s Restaurant, and all of the similar businesses. One of the things about progress is that it stamps on the people who are there to help it occur and need it to occur. A lot of businesses have suffered to have something good happen. For the next two months, have every breakfast, lunch, and dinner somewhere near the D Street Overpass because those folks will give you a round of applause.

5. Dan Mathis, Federal Highways Administration, Division Administrator

In commemoration of the day, I wrote a little poem:

We’re here to celebrate the D Street Overpass
To cut the ribbon on this key project at last

On behalf of WSDOT’s Office of Highways and Local Programs, and the Federal Highway Administration, too
We wish to congratulate the City of Tacoma and the many other partners who helped make this come true.

A myriad of partners helped with the funding
Upwards of 14 contributed to it
From Fed, State, and local agencies
To BNSF and UP, and our friends from Sound Transit

This D Street Overpass project separates vehicles and pedestrians from trains
Allowing ease of movement and increased safety for all it gains

Improved access it also provides to a revitalized Thea Foss Waterway
And future parks and esplanades for those who work, and those who play

Improvements to the streetscape enhance the neighborhood anew with sidewalks and signals and lights
A new roadway surface, and landscape features, too

As we cut the ribbon for the D Street Overpass
This project proves that from strong partnerships come projects with great class

Congratulations, Tacoma