City moves forward on streetcar feasibility study

Tacoma City Council last night unanimously passed a resolution directing city staff to study the feasibility of developing an historic-style streetcar that would connect business districts and transport passengers throughout the city.

The move means the city will work with Pierce Transit, Sound Transit, neighborhood councils, and business districts to determine the technology and financing necessary to build a Tacoma streetcar system.

Mayor Bill Baarsma was optimistic that support and resources for studying the plan would be made available. He noted that Pierce Transit CEO Lynne M. Griffith, who joined the transportation agency in April, has experience in light rail and commuter rail planning. “I think we have a partner who will work with the city and Sound Transit,” said Baarsma, who chairs the Pierce Transit board of commissioners, which also includes Councilembers Rick Talbert and Tom Stenger.

“I think we’re moving in the right direction,” said streetcar organizer Morgan Alexander. Alexander told councilmembers the streetcar “encourages people within the city to get out and explore the city.”

The study will shed light on costs associated with the idea, which some people have guessed could total $15 million per mile. “It depends on how pretty you want to make it,” said Alexander after the council meeting. He noted a streetcar system in Portland was less than $15 million per mile. However, a similar system in Seattle cost $40 million per mile.
Stalling on the idea only raises costs, according to Alexander. “Each year delayed, the more expensive it’s going to be,” he said.

Alexander and fellow streetcar backer William Osborne said they would form an organization of other streetcar supporters to complement the feasibility study.

City support for the streetcar has grown over the past few months. On April 12, the city’s environment and public works committee unanimously approved a do-pass recommendation that led to last night’s resolution.

“We’re supportive of the idea,” said Pierce Transit staffer Scott Morris during the April 12 meeting. “We’re very enthusiastic.”

Supporters argue the streetcar would reduce traffic and auto emissions, increase participation in public transit, encourage economic revitalization, boost tourism, and provide a sense of historic preservation.

The plan calls for three lines connecting points as far north as the Proctor District, and as far south as South Tacoma Way. The 6.1-mile blue line would serve the Sixth Avenue, Stadium, and Proctor Districts; the 4.6-mile yellow line would serve the Hilltop neighborhood; and the 4.7-mile green line would reach the Lincoln District, Tacoma Mall, and South Tacoma Way. An optional fourth line would stretch eight miles and serve the Westgate area.

Final costs for the project are expected to be determined during the feasibility study.

Streetcar roots in Tacoma date back to the 1890s, when the Tacoma and Steilacoom Railway Company used steam engines to transport passengers between the two cities, according to, an online encyclopedia of Washington State history. Steam-powered trolleys were replaced by horse-drawn trolleys and, later on, an electric streetcar system (at one time, the 12-mile line was the longest in the world).

Currently, Sound Transit operates Link Light Rail, a 1.6-mile line connecting the Dome District to the Theater District.