Opposition won't stop Sounder through Dome District

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.