Sound Transit starts small with Tacoma Link system

TACOMA — As curious riders waited up to an hour to hop aboard, Sound Transit opened the state's first modern light-rail line here yesterday.

Tacoma Link trains will run every few minutes to the University of Washington branch campus, the Museum of Glass, a future convention center, business towers and the historic theater district.

This is a streetcar, not the ambitious 14-mile main rail line that Sound Transit hopes will connect Seattle with Tukwila by 2009.

At $80 million for 1.6 miles of track, the Tacoma system serves relatively few passengers, is slightly faster than a bus and provides minimal traffic relief.

On the other hand, the trains provide comfortable rides for tourists and the lunch crowd making short hops. Commuters can park in huge garages and lots near the Tacoma Dome and ride Link to their jobs, or they can transfer from light rail to express buses, Amtrak and Sounder trains.

Most significantly, the system is one piece of a downtown renaissance that has brought new condominiums and the restoration of blighted brick buildings.

Already, the neighboring Puyallup Tribe has shown an interest in extending the line to its casino on the east side of Interstate 5.

Sound Transit will soon consider whether to accept $50,000 from the tribe to study the route, which would be funded by the tribe or federal government rather than local taxpayers, said Kevin Phelps, a Tacoma city councilman and head of Sound Transit's finance committee.

Officials touted the new line as proof the agency can successfully build a high-capacity system in Seattle.

"It is a very clear notice that Sound Transit can and does deliver, and it is a delicious taste of what will be delivered 40 miles north of here," said Chairman Ron Sims, the King County executive.

However, the Seattle project presents much greater challenges.

The controversial 14-mile, $2.44 billion "Central Link" line from Westlake Center to Tukwila requires a tunnel under Beacon Hill as well as displacement of homes and businesses along a surface section in Rainier Valley. It was to have been running from the University District to Seattle-Tacoma International Airport by 2006, but because of high costs the route was shortened and the opening delayed to 2009.

With a bottle of "Lite Rail Ale" from a restaurant along the route, Phelps christened the first train outside the refurbished Freighthouse Square. The trains have a low-floor midsection for wheelchairs. They are roomy enough to carry more than the official 56-person capacity if needed. Huge windows brighten the interiors, but the windows don't open.

From the street, they are nearly silent.

More than 3,000 people tried it out yesterday afternoon, said spokesman Geoff Patrick.

One of the first trips had a one-minute delay because a truck was parked over the rail. Another one lingered at a station while waiting for the oncoming train to arrive in a single-track section.

Five employees from DaVita, a provider of dialysis services, took a midday test ride. About 600 of the company's employees work in Tacoma, and a large share of them already park outside downtown. An existing downtown connector bus will be replaced by light rail that runs more often.

"This is better because if my kid's sick and I have to pick him up from school, I can get to my car faster," said billing employee Jackie Meyers, who parks near the freeway and rides into downtown.

"I'm all in favor of light rail and mass transit, but I don't see spending $80 million on this," said Perry Colombini, a bank manager who thought the money would be better spent on car-pool lanes to ease regional traffic. "I love Tacoma — I hope this does build on the renaissance."

Phelps thanked downtown businesses for putting up with the noise and dirt.

A beauty shop and a bookstore folded during the construction, according to Ruth Swanson, owner of the Connoisseur gifts and crafts shop, which survived.

"Nobody could find us. Nobody could park. I had orange cones in my nightmares," she said. Swanson survived because of a 20-percent rent discount and a loyal clientele, she said. But she was excited to see yesterday's crowds of shoppers and busy sidewalks. "We're on our way. It's been a long struggle," she said.

Laura Nole, manager of University Bookstore, said Link will be "a godsend" for part-time students who have trouble parking around campus, or who take up spaces needed by retailers.

The $80 million price to taxpayers is higher than the $50 million advertised when voters approved the regional "Sound Move" transit plan in 1996. About $12 million of the increase was simply inflation, while the rest includes sidewalk improvements and other add-ons since the vote, officials said.

At a per-mile price of $50 million, Tacoma Link was as expensive as high-capacity lines in other cities that carry long trains at higher speeds. Those systems, which provide more transit benefit, also had the advantage of abandoned railbed or other cheap land.

"At 1.6 miles for $80 million, including a maintenance base, that stacks up extremely well for an urban line," Phelps said.

Mike Lindblom: 206-515-5631 or

Tale of the trains

The Tacoma streetcar line that opened yesterday is smaller than the "Central Link" system that Sound Transit hopes to begin building this fall between Seattle and Tukwila.

Tacoma Link

Route: 1.6 miles

Train size: 66 feet long, 31 tons

Capacity: 56 riders

Top speed: 25 mph

Ridership: 2,000 daily trips

Project cost: $80 million

Opening date: Yesterday

Central Link, Seattle

Route: 13.9 miles

Capacity: 274 riders in a two-car train

Top speed: 35 mph in Rainier Valley, 50 mph in elevated sections in Tukwila

Ridership: 42,500 daily trips

Project cost: $2.44 billion

Opening date: 2009