City Council to discuss Sounder / Pacific Avenue bridge crossing

Members of the City Council are scheduled Dec. 1 to receive a presentation from Sound Transit regarding the Pacific Avenue Bridge. As a second item on the agenda, members of the Council are scheduled to discuss the State Legislative and Federal Policy Priorities for 2010. The Council will not take public comment during the noon study session in the Tacoma Municipal Building North, 733 Market St., Room 16. Audio from the session will be broadcast live on TV Tacoma and on . On-demand audio archives are available on the Web within 24 hours of the meeting at .

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For earlier Index coverage, click on the following:

1. “One last pitch for alternative rail design through Dome District,” 07/28/09 —

2. PHOTOS — Sound Transit Dome District Walking Tour —

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1. City appears poised to endorse Dome District Sounder route (02/14/07)

By Todd Matthews, Editor

Discussion Tuesday during a study session at City Hall indicated that Tacoma City Council will likely endorse a Sound Transit Sounder route that threatens the future of several downtown businesses.

The plan, one of four alternative routes connecting the Dome District to South Tacoma and Lakewood, and ranging from an at-grade, $42 million line to a $240 million tunnel, calls for constructing a route that would cross Pacific Avenue between South 25th and South 26th Streets, and travel along South Tacoma Way. It’s a route that runs directly through a handful of businesses, including Tacoma Travel Lodge, Eagle Tire, Paramount Electric Co., and Star Ice & Fuel.

Last year, members of the local chapter of the American Institute of Architects worked pro bono on a proposed a plan to build a tunnel underneath Pacific Avenue. They hoped to lessen the impact on local businesses. Sound Transit officials yesterday said the plan, which is estimated to cost $240 million, was too expensive.

“Each route has its own issues,” said Sound Transit project manager Mark Johnson. “If how to minimize the impact on Pacific Avenue was the only issue, we would probably build a tunnel. But there is a lot of issues we have to balance.”

The proposed $92 million rail line would reroute South Tacoma Way to meet Pacific Avenue at South 27th Street, close a portion of A Street and South C Street, and create a rail overpass on Pacific Avenue If the route is endorsed by the Sound Transit Board of Directors, service could start as soon as 2011. On Feb. 22, the Sound Transit Board will hear a staff report on the issue.

“I’m hoping the board will make a decision in April,” said Sound Transit CEO Joni Earl.

Still, another hurdle is cost: the original, at-grade-crossing plan was funded at $42 million (city leaders oppose it because it would stop traffic along Pacific Avenue). The proposed plan would cost $50 million more.

“It’s still a stretch to find all the money, but it’s the best chance we have of getting something approved and funded,” said Councilmember Tom Stenger.

Last week, city staff endorsed the plan during the Council’s environment and public works committee meeting. At that meeting, the route also received support from the Coalition for Nalley Valley Business Development. “We simply do not have a second choice as a recommendation,” coalition president Kevin Mauermann told committee members.

Though support exists, it’s hardly overwhelming. Most business owners and councilmembers realize the route is inevitable, and likely puts in jeopardy the future of several businesses. Moreover, several local business owners wrote letters to City Council outlining their concerns about impacts on businesses, traffic, and area environment.

Dome District stakeholders appear most concerned.

“I think the Dome District is struggling,” said Pierson Clair, President and CEO of Brown & Haley, which is located adjacent to the proposed Sounder line. Clair spoke during an afternoon meeting of the city’s community and economic development department. “It’s difficult to get your head around the impact of this.”

Dome District development director Lynn Thompson echoed that concern.

“I think it’s in the best interest for the City of Tacoma to sit down and look at how to lessen the impact of what happens in the Dome District,” said Thompson. She asked the committee to help fund a plan to hire a consultant to examine how to mitigate what impact the proposed route would have on the district.

That request was denied.

“I think we’re all adjusting to the reality of the discussion we had today,” said Ryan Petty, the city’s community and economic development director.

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2. Trouble Crossing: A conversation with architect, planning commissioner David Boe (10/12/07)

By Todd Matthews, Editor

“If you look at something like this, it isn’t a short-term solution,” says architect and planning commissioner David Boe, referring to his concerns over Sound Transit’s expanded Sounder service, and its impact on the Dome District and Pacific Avenue. “It’s going to have a lasting impact on the city and how people perceive the city.”

By Todd Matthews, Editor

Tacoma resident and architect David Boe has become very familiar with the city’s Comprehensive Plan. During a recent meeting at his downtown architecture firm, he drops a thick, heavy (and heavily flagged) binder, which contains the plan, onto a conference room table and cracks it open. “Here it is,” he says, as though it’s the Holy Grail.

To anyone interested in urban planning, it is.

It’s the document that guides the city’s planning future. And it’s the document that Boe has pointed to in his effort to raise an alarm over Sound Transit’s plan to build an elevated bridge over Pacific Avenue to link Sounder commuter service between Tacoma Dome Station and Lakewood Station.

Supporters say the connection was promised to commuters in Lakewood, and the project is overdue. Opponents say Sound Transit’s plan violates the Comprehensive Plan, and that promise was made using an existing rail line; a new rail line and an elevated bridge will knock out businesses in the Dome District and have negative impact on the neighborhood for a century or more.

No one has been a more visible opponent than Boe, who is vice-chair of the City of Tacoma’s Planning Commission. In July, he wrote a lengthy editorial in The News Tribune opposing Sound Transit’s plan and urging city leaders to pressure the agency to look at other alternatives. He has also drawn maps and hosted walking tours to illustrate the project’s impact on the neighborhood: can you imagine a wall rising 12 feet to a bridge over Pacific Avenue? How about increased diesel train activity through the Dome District? What about the infrastructure headache involved with lowering a section of Pacific Avenue to dip beneath the train’s bridge crossing?

Boe’s first introduction to the city’s Comprehensive Plan occurred five years ago, when his firm was designing Rainier Pacific Bank’s downtown headquarters at South 15th Street and Pacific Avenue.

It was the first new public building to go through the city’s Destination Downtown code — a planning policy geared to foster projects that create a lively downtown. “In the process of going through that code, we realized there were inconsistencies,” he explains. “There were code requirements that were actually contradictory to each other, and the general policies of the Comprehensive Plan.”

At issue: a requirement of only one curb cut per development, unless the project had over 200 parking stalls. Boe and his client tried to get a variance, but found the policy inflexible. They considered going through a public process to change the code, but that would delay the project two years.

“So Rainier Pacific ended up building more parking than it needed to or should have provided by common sense,” says Boe, who still stands behind the project, but wishes it could have offered more. “It meant we couldn’t have retail all along Pacific Avenue or all along Commerce Street, which is what the client wanted. That building is not the building it could have been because of code requirements in the city.”

The experience spurred Boe to join the all-volunteer Planning Commission and provide an architects expertise.

Today, his concerns about Sounder crossing Pacific Avenue come at a time when residents and some City Councilmembers are questioning whether Sound Transit’s projects have Tacoma’s best interests in mind.

On Sept. 12, the city council’s environment and public works committee recommended the City hire an independent consultant to examine alternatives to Sound Transit’s plan. The decision came at the end of a spirited meeting with the mayor, some councilmembers, and a group of Dome District business leaders who oppose the bridge crossing.

This week, City Council faced two competing resolutions supporting and opposing Sound Transit’s $18 billion (in 2006 dollars; approximately $47 billion, say some experts, if you account for inflation and a rise in construction costs) Proposition 1 — the so-called “Roads and Transit” package that will implement new sales and motor vehicle taxes, and whose fate will be decided by voters Nov. 6. The opposition resolution was more of a statement against Sound Transit’s treatment of the city.

The Index met Boe recently to discuss his thoughts on urban planning and concerns over Sounder crossing Pacific Avenue.

TACOMA DAILY INDEX: How did you first get involved in this issue of Sounder crossing Pacific Avenue?

DAVID BOE: When reviewing another project, I stumbled onto the transportation element of the Comprehensive Plan. The plan is a vision of where the city is going. I started reading these things about multi-modal transportation: how it’s supposed to be designed to foster economic development; how it’s supposed to be beautiful, engaging, and express the character of the surrounding context that it is being put into. Subsequently, looking at what Sound Transit was proposing on the rail extension, it didn’t seem to be doing that. It seemed to be doing the contrary. It was not respecting the character of the place. It was not something that was designed to foster economic development. So I asked the question of City staff, ‘Does this come before the planning commission?’ [My thought was that Sound Transit] would have to come in and modify the Comprehensive Plan to make it consistent with what it wanted to do, which is what private individuals are required to do. The staff said, ‘No.’ I was surprised at that. On my own, I wrote a letter to the Mayor and City Council expressing my concern.

INDEX: You are the one, more than anyone else, whose name is attached to this issue, and has really taken the lead on raising concerns. Would you agree with that?

BOE: I think in some ways, I may have a little more passion about this issue because of my past experience. Between 1987 and 1989, I was the Docklands Light Railway coordinator in London for the Canary Wharf Station. I’m an architect, but for two years I was coordinating the design of this light rail station as it went from one side of the dock to the other side of the dock. I got an understanding about how these things are designed, and how engineers design them. What I was really impressed with was that this project had an urban design consultant from London Transport who was part of all the design decision-making. When the engineers would come solve the issue very straight-forward — ‘Oh, my rail line has to be at 2.85 percent, and that’s how I get that gradient’ — the urban design fellow would say, ‘Whoa! You may have solved the engineering issue, but you’ve just created a whole ton of urban design issues.’ I think that’s why, on the planning commission especially on this issue, I may be a little more vocal about it. But I also think part of it is just having the confidence on the commission that I can raise these issues. I must admit that I was impressed that the city councilmembers on the environment and public works committee who basically congratulated the planning commission chair and myself for bringing this up. We don’t have to necessarily always follow staff protocol. If we see issues, as guardians of the Comprehensive Plan, that seem to be amiss, we shouldn’t have our hands slapped down for raising them up and saying, ‘There’s an issue here.’

INDEX: One push-back to the demand that Sound Transit look at alternatives for Sounder crossing Pacific Avenue is affordability. Tacoma doesn’t have the ridership or budget to demand some of the changes Seattle has demanded of Sound Transit from its light rail line. Have you heard that argument? What do you think about it?

BOE: I’ve heard that argument. In which case, you start to wonder, ‘Why are we doing this at all?’ That push-back is, when you look at the ridership projected for this Lakewood expansion and the cost, it doesn’t pencil. If you were a project developer, you would say, ‘It’s not even close.’ So you’re going to spend millions and millions of dollars to basically amp up a little bit of the ridership. That doesn’t make fiscal sense. And especially when you think, ‘OK, are we really servicing the transit needs?’ You start to look at the realities of those heavy Sounder lines, and you start to wonder, ‘Maybe that doesn’t make any sense. Because if we don’t have the ridership for it, maybe we should develop a system that can have that kind of ridership.’ That push-back that we have to look at affordability for what our ridership is [makes you ask], ‘Should we really be extending that heavy rail at all?’ It’s the only heavy rail that Sound Transit is developing. Another push-back is people say, ‘This is our mandate. People voted on this, we have to complete this.’ Wait. Go back and look at your mandate. You said that on Sounder, you were going to use existing rail line and work with Burlington Northern Santa Fe and other rail providers to increase the maintenance and coordination of existing rail line. Go to Lakewood on existing rail lines. That’s what the mandate said. When you are basically changing the infrastructure, it better be worth it. But what I’m hearing is that we can’t afford it because there isn’t the ridership. Then maybe it’s not worth it.

INDEX: So, you’re saying don’t build it in the first place?

BOE: Well . . . It’s going to be a diesel train. We are increasing the amount of diesel trains that are running through our city, for a ridership that’s not in capacity of the trains running through the city.

INDEX: The other argument — and you touched on it — is that Lakewood is waiting for this, and every delay means a rise in construction cost. But you seem to be asking, ‘Why are we doing it in the first place?’

BOE: Well, [why are we doing] this exact type of system? I think the city manager right now is coming onboard with the streetcar system. I don’t think you make 100-year decisions saying, ‘We promised this to Lakewood, we have to get it out there to Lakewood, and we have our timeline and rising construction costs.’ If this did not have such a potential disastrous impact to Tacoma, I would say, ‘OK. Fine. Use the existing rail.’ Sound Transit can go and make improvements to the rail up the valley and connect through. That’s how Tacoma Rail right now services its customers in Nalley Valley. Tacoma Rail doesn’t go across Pacific Avenue. If you want to do it in the least obtrusive way, go up the valley. Again, you may have promised service to Lakewood, but you’ve promised, what, 500 riders? Is that worth Tacoma taking it in the shorts for 500 people in Lakewood? I would argue that’s probably not a good trade. Once you’ve done that, there’s no going back. And the construction cost alone of lowering Pacific Avenue and South Tacoma Way and 26th Street — you’re shutting that whole area down for at least a year. You have to lower all the infrastructure and all those pipes. For 500 riders, run up the valley. That’s a no-brainer.

INDEX: Clearly, there’s tension right now between some people in Tacoma, particularly in the Dome District, and Sound Transit. Do you think Sound Transit has run roughshod over Tacoma, and Seattle has gotten its way with projects in a way Tacoma hasn’t?

BOE: My feeling is that there aren’t a lot of people on City Council working in private business. They are more in the public agency or non-profit [arenas]. I think the council sometimes trusts consultants, staff, and planners more than it maybe should, and that’s not trying to cast evil in any way. It’s just like, ‘Well, we had a study on it. We had public meetings on it. It’s gone around the circuit. It must be OK.’ When it comes to some of these issues, you really need a different perspective. I would say Tacoma’s leadership hasn’t always held the bar to a higher level, especially when public money is involved. Being from the private practice and doing primarily private architecture and commercial architecture, I’ve seen the bar held to a certain height for private development, but lowered for public development. I personally believe it should be the other way around. If it’s public money, you don’t do it on the cheap because it’s public investment into your city. I look at Stadium High School and its renovation, and the amount of money spent. Any sensible person would say they never should have renovated that hotel into a school. Some people would say this latest renovation was just completely stupid. It’s public money — you should put in portables and make it as cheap as possible. But you look at that high school and say, ‘No, that’s a commitment to the city, the school district, and the high school.’ You really should build some quality in. If you look at something like [Sounder crossing Pacific Avenue], it isn’t a short-term solution. It’s going to have a lasting impact on the city and how people perceive the city.

David Boe has sketched his concerns for Sounder moving through the Dome District and across Pacific Avenue.

To view the rail line as it exists today, click here:

To view Boe’s sketch of the impacts as proposed, click here:

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3. Opposition won’t stop Sounder through Dome District (11/28/07)

By Todd Matthews, Editor

A growing, grassroots opposition to a plan to build a 1.2-mile commuter rail line to connect Tacoma’s Dome District to stations in South Tacoma and Lakewood was extinguished yesterday as representatives from Sound Transit briefed Tacoma City Council on its plan to move forward on the project next month.

“Sound Transit has stopped for two years to try and get this done right,” said Sound Transit board chair John W. Ladenburg, referring to the agency’s decision in 2005 to delay the project, spend approximately $800,000 on additional studies, and host dozens of community meetings to examine alternatives to linking the three stations. “It cannot be said we have not spent time and money to listen.”

Opponents have argued running diesel trains through the Dome District and across busy Pacific Avenue, knocking out nearly a dozen small businesses to make way for the rail line, would have long-term impacts on Tacoma, including traffic congestion on Pacific Avenue, danger to pedestrians, and a curb in interest from mixed-use developers. They also argued ridership doesn’t exist to support heavy commuter rail, and encouraged the transit agency to consider light rail instead. Several Dome District stakeholders had created a petition to delay the decision so it could be studied further.

During yesterday’s standing-room-only meeting at City Hall, however, it was clear that Sound Transit would vote Dec. 13 on one of two alternatives: an at-grade crossing of Pacific Avenue, between South 25th and 26th Streets; or lowering Pacific Avenue to make room for an above-grade bridge crossing.

City Council will officially vote in early-December on a resolution supporting one of the options.

Based on comments yesterday by councilmembers, it appears City Council will favor a resolution that would support a bridge crossing.

But any endorsement will be bitter-sweet.

Councilmember Jake Fey, who represents a district in the city that includes the Dome District, hoped any resolution would have also have a set of guidelines that would ensure whatever is built is aesthetically compatible and safe for the district’s business owners and residents. “My concern is how this gets done, what impact it has, and whether this is positive or negative to residential and commercial development that might happen in this area,” said Fey. “I want to be able to point and say, ‘We made the right decision.'”

Councilmember Bill Evans acknowledged many of the opponents in attendance yesterday, and asked when they would have an opportunity to share their concerns.

“There are different concerns, different issues, and lots of different opinions,” said Ladenburg, who reminded councilmembers of the number of community meetings and open houses Sound Transit has hosted. “We’ve heard all those voices. We’ve come to a point where we need to make a final decision on this.”

Tacoma Mayor Bill Baarsma asked what would happen if the City chose not to pass a resolution endorsing one of the plans.

“Frankly, Sound Transit could override the City and build it,” said Ladenburg. He told councilmembers that Washington State law gives the transit agency certain authority over the city to build the line “as it was sold to voters.”

Lakewood Mayor Claudia Thomas conveyed her frustration over a two-year delay. “We’re tired of waiting,” she said. “I’m tired of studies. It’s time to act. I can’t keep going back to my citizens and making excuses as to why we’re not here. I’m here to say, ‘Let’s move.'”

Tacoma City Councilmember and Deputy Mayor Rick Talbert agreed.

“If the situation was different, and it was us waiting for commuter rail to arrive, we would be demanding it,” said Talbert.

“People of South Tacoma are equally frustrated,” said Councilmember Connie Ladenburg, who represents that part of the city, and is married to Sound Transit board chair Ladenburg. “We cannot please everyone in our community in regards to this.” Ladenburg said she was anxious to move forward on the project, and was glad a deadline was in place.

According to board chair Ladenburg, delaying the extension has resulted in a deficit. The $148-million project, originally scheduled to be completed in 2001, will now be completed in 2012. It is also $60- to $75-million over budget. Ladenburg said the agency would seek additional funding from the state and federal governments.

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