One last pitch for alternative rail design through Dome District

Tacoma Dome District stakeholders turned out en masse Monday to oppose Sound Transit’s design plans for connecting commuter rail service from Tacoma Dome Station to South Tacoma and Lakewood.

The issue of how to achieve that goal is one that has pitted Dome District businesses and property owners against the regional transit agency for several years. Sound Transit plans to build wide berms through the district (specifically between South D Street and South M Street) in order to raise the tracks enough to build a bridge to cross over Pacific Avenue and climb South Tacoma Way toward Lakewood. Opponents want the agency to build post-and-beam structures instead because they would leave open space beneath the tracks and, they argue, create a more vibrant neighborhood for pedestrians, residents, small business owners, and even urban wildlife that pass through a gulch.

Yesterday morning, Pierce County Executive Pat McCarthy invited Sound Transit CEO Joni Earl and community members to discuss the plan and walk the proposed route.

“I’m a Tacoma resident,” said Earl in an effort to endear herself to the 100-plus people who squeezed into Freighthouse Square’s center lobby for the presentation. “I live in North Tacoma. I’m not a Seattle person. I’m a Tacoma person.”

Unfortunately for Earl, it wasn’t enough.

One group set up its own poster boards with photographs and design plans for the alternative post-and-beam design. A Dome District property owner suggested meeting with elected officials in Washington D.C. to try and secure more money to pay for the alternative design. And a candidate for mayor said Tacoma was being stuck with a cheaper design while cities such as Seattle and Tukwila receive Sound Transit’s full attention.

Originally, the plan had called for a $76 million project that would include an at-grade crossing through busy Pacific Avenue. However, the agency and Tacoma City Council moved to raise the tracks over Pacific Avenue, lower a section of Pacific Avenue to accommodate a bridge, and build berms for the rail line — nearly doubling the project to $151 million.

According to Earl, the post-and-beam alternative would cost another $4 million and result in more delays (the project was slated to be finished eight years ago; construction is now set to begin in April 2010, and service would begin in the second quarter of 2012).

Here are some of the comments made yesterday from a variety of stakeholders:

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1. What is the history of the project?

This started back with an [Environmental Impact Statement] back in 1997 and 1998. The EIS was finalized in 2002. That was the at-grade alignment that we moved off of in 2007 for a variety of reasons, one of which was safety issues on the grade that we determined during final design. Also, working with the City of Tacoma and the community, many people raised a lot of questions about the surface alignment. In 2007, the City of Tacoma and the Sound Transit Board reached an agreement about the alignment that’s grade separated along here.

2. What is the budget for the project?

When this project started back in 2007, the cost was $76 million. That was for the surface alignment. As we worked through issues, City Manager Eric Anderson and I worked on a term sheet on how we would do the project. The City Council approved that term sheet back in January 2008. So we have a term sheet about how we’re working together. During the course of the last two-and-a-half to three years, we had at least 30 meetings about the project.

Where we stand now is we were at $76 million with the at-grade alignment. Based upon conceptual cost estimates, the Sound Transit Board approved a budget of $151 million, which is about doubling it, in order to do the grade separated alignment that the city and the community wanted. We said at the very beginning and all along that we didn’t have that much money for the project. We have been working with the city and the state to get grant dollars in addition to the money we have. We have been pretty successful. Right now we have $129 million for the project confirmed, with a $22 million shortfall. We got some grants to make up for that. We’ve been trying to work very hard to keep within the $151 million. That’s where we stand on the budget side of the project.

Since 2008, after we went with the grade separation, we have been going through the design process. At 30 per cent design, which happened earlier this year, we got a new cost estimate. That cost estimate today is about $166 million. As you can see, we are about $15 million over. If we were to stay at that number, we would be $37 million short on the project.

We’ve been trying to work very hard to keep within the $151 million. That’s where we stand on the budget side of the project.

3. Why won’t Sound Transit go with a post-and-beam design rather than the berm design?

We looked all the way across the entire D-to-M, and we’ve got technical reports here. We have a bunch of copies and we can get more copies if you need them. We actually tasked [our technical staff] to look at post-and-beam on the entire alignment, in addition to the berm, in order to look at the feasibility. When Tacoma City Council took its most recent action, which was what we call the Gateway Concept, they specifically wanted a gateway concept along A Street and a post-and-beam bridge over Pacific Avenue. We agreed with that. That’s what is in the project. But they said [we want] post-and-beam where appropriate, and left that to the technical staff between the city and Sound Transit to work out. In order to make that determination, we looked at the entire alignment — post-and-beam and berm. The determination made was the only two places on the line that were even engineering-wise feasible for post-and-beam were under I-705 and along the D Street gulch. Everyplace else, you actually have to dig down just to create a hole in order to create a post-and-beam. From an engineering standpoint, it didn’t make a lot of sense. It doesn’t make sense in our view and from an engineering standpoint to dig a hole in order to build a bridge.

As we looked at the project and where was it feasible to do it and how do we do it, that’s how we arrived at the design we have today. The other thing to think about is with commuter rail, those are heavier trains than what you’ve seen out here with light rail. It’s a different structure. We have to meet all the seismic earthquake codes and clearance codes for what the federal government requires. So it’s not an insignificant post-and-beam. You have heavy rail riding on that track.

4. What will be the size of the berm?

There’s a difference between the size of the berm and the size of the right-of-way. What we’re getting is an 80-foot right-of-way. But we’re only building a single track from D-to-M. The reason for the 80 feet is to preserve the right-of-way in order to possibly, in the future, in the event there is somebody — not Sound Transit — Amtrak or somebody that believes we need to double-track. But that’s not what we’re doing.

5. Will there be fencing along the berm?

We do not intend to fence the berm at all. Where there is fencing now, most of the fencing has to do with Washington State Department of Transportation right-of-way that has to do with I-705. Where we would fence, and we’ve worked this out with the city, is after we complete the project. Where we have parcels that we own, that we don’t have another buyer for, parcels would be fenced, possibly. But not the berm. Not the right-of-way. The other place we have a fence is up behind the mission, and that’s because [the track is] just right behind the mission.

6. What about the streetscape and wildlife habitat in the area?

The city has a complete streets program. Along 25th and where we are doing the work, we are required to have — and do have in our plan — the streetscape the city requires, which is street trees and wide sidewalks. Where the D Street gulch is, the type of wildlife habitat is called “urban adaptive wildlife.” Those are raccoons, rats, possums, those types of urban wildlife. We have not been able to find any records of deer there. Back in 2000, when we did the EIS, [the gulch] has always been planned to be filled in. So the idea of it being filled today with this project is consistent with the plan all along. But there are culverts that go through that and feed into the Thea Foss Waterway. One of the things we are talking about is looking at the size of those culverts to [see if we can] go bigger for that urban adaptive wildlife that we found in the gulch.

7. How will the berm be maintained?

The concern I’ve heard is it won’t be maintained. It will grow crazy and wild. We need to work that out with the city on what those expectations will be.

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KEITH STONE, DOME DISTRICT PROPERTY OWNER: If we could come up with the $4 to $6 million [need for post-and-beam] by going back [to Washington, D.C.], would you do the post-and-beam for us? The majority of Tacoma wants post-and-beam and we’re not being listened to. If we can help by taking a majority of the people back there and talk to Sen. Patty Murray or someone. Transit is getting a lot of grants right now.

PAT MCCARTHY, PIERCE COUNTY EXECUTIVE AND SOUND TRANSIT BOARD MEMBER: Keith, it’s funny. We’re starting this dialogue with East Link, which is going to Bellevue. I will tell you the entire Bellevue community is split on what they want to do. About half the people want to go with a tunnel, which is going to cost $700 million more. We’ve got half the people saying they like at-grade. But it’s time and money. We have to consider that. But that’s a decision that is up to the Sound Transit Board. My observation is the City of Tacoma has been engaged with Sound Transit. I almost feel like Sound Transit has been carrying a lot of the heavy water and doing the heavy lifting. But the City of Tacoma has been engaged. I think it’s advocates and people who have said, ‘We want a gateway.’ That made all the difference in the world. But it added another $70 million on to this project. At some point in time, we’re going to have to move forward. I think that’s the reality. The answer to your question is that it’s up to the Sound Transit Board. That’s something we would have to deliberate. Would we put ourselves in a position to lose some of the other funding that is queued up and ready to go? And are we going to get to Lakewood? I can assure you the Lakewood folks are concerned about that.

STONE: But we’re not split on this issue in Tacoma. We want post-and-beam.

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JORI ADKINS, DOME DISTRICT COMMUNITY ACTIVIST: First of all, here’s a picture of a deer going across the tracks and trying to get up the tracks. But I think the big thing I want to say has to do with post-and-beam. It has to do with Sound Transit’s drawings of post-and-beam and our vision of post-and-beam. We do not envision post-and-beam being posts that are 100 feet apart that make up a bridge that has to be really thick. We’re envisioning a post-and-beam that looks like what’s one 26th or any other overbridge that has posts that are about 30 feet apart, which means the bridge could be a lot thinner. We also don’t envision, even though we talked about post-and-beaming the whole thing, we’re not saying it has to be clear underneath. It can be backfilled. What we’re asking for is a track that is self-supportive. We’re asking for a track that is post-and-beam because it is self-supporting and you can build up close to those tracks. We cannot find one developer that will take on land that is near tracks, which is what the Dome District really wants. We want to be a transit-oriented developed district. To do that, we need to take the land next to that track and build next to it and up to it so we can have retail on the street, parking behind it protected from the track, and we have housing on top. This can’t happen if you berm out.

JONI EARL, SOUND TRANSIT CEO: Two comments. First, our posts are about 50 to 55 feet apart, not 100 feet. The second thing is that when the consultants looked at the opportunity for economic development and the ability to get closer to the track, we allowed a developer to go into the berm. That’s something the city specifically asked for language on that we would allow somebody to go in. From a flexibility standpoint, it’s our belief that you have more flexibility for the developers with the berm.

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JIM MERRITT, CANDIDATE FOR MAYOR OF TACOMA: I took a train ride last Saturday from Tukwila to downtown Seattle. I specifically wanted to know — and looked out the window the whole time — how it was holding track. From Tukwila, it is on structure essentially all the way to Martin Luther King. There is not one foot of fill. There are places in Tukwila that certainly could have been like Tacoma. My question is, ‘Why does Tacoma have to accept an inferior solution?’

JONI EARL, SOUND TRANSIT CEO:There are actually seven structures along the 14-mile alignment that are earthen. The track is on it. Because we had very limited right-of-way to operate on, there are walls. In some places, they’re fenced. But there are actually seven parts of that alignment that have some type of an earthen structure holding it up. But they are contained with the retaining walls. Quite frankly, the retaining walls, years ago when we were in front of City Council, that was one of the things the city didn’t want. A bunch of retaining walls.

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For photographs of yesterday’s meeting and walking tour, visit the Index’s blog at