Monday, October 05, 2009

Sounder Dome District route design splits city

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Sound Transit's design for a commuter rail line from Tacoma Dome Station to Lakewood is dividing city leaders and residents and creating an election-season stir, according to the Tacoma News Tribune. The debate is likely to erupt again when the Tacoma City Council holds a public hearing on the master development agreement between Sound Transit and the city. The council is expected to vote on the issue Oct. 13.

Opponents - including business owners and neighborhood council leaders - dispute the transit agency's plans to use an earthen berm to elevate the Sounder train through the Dome District, a move they believe will squelch potential in an area that's ripe for growth.

"The problem with the dirt wall is it divides the city, it stops development," said Pierson Clair, president and CEO of candymaker Brown & Haley. He fears the company's operations will be hemmed in by the embankment.

Berm opponents favor elevating the line using a monorail-style riser - also known as post and beam - through the neighborhood. Putting the tracks on an earth bank is an ugly example of a city and a regional transit authority not listening to their constituents, opponents say.

Not so, counter Sound Transit officials. They point out that they've spent more time on the 1.4-mile, $161-million segment of track from East D to South M streets than on any other portion of the 8.2-mile route. Decisions to carry the rail on an overpass over busy Pacific Avenue, bridge the East B Street ravine and create a pedestrian avenue under the line on East A Street stemmed from extensive meetings with the public, Sound Transit capital projects director Jim Edwards said.

Plans have been considerably modified from original inceptions, which put the train on grade-level tracks across Pacific Avenue, Downtown Tacoma's main thoroughfare. The city wanted a bridge over the road; Sound Transit agreed but then needed to gradually elevate the track en route to the overpass. All of that will cost millions more, they said.

The berm is the safest, least costly, most efficient way to elevate the tracks through the Dome District, Edwards said. Sound Transit officials also dispute whether the post-and-beam design would work for hefty commuter trains.

No one, including City Council members who want to move ahead with the long-promised line to Lakewood, thinks putting a railroad through the heart of a city will be pretty. Leaders must "put as much lipstick on the pig as we can and do it with the least amount of disruption" to the city and its neighborhoods, said City Councilman Jake Fey.

Commuter rail from Lakewood to Everett was promised in the $4-billion multifaceted transit package approved by South Sound voters in 1996. The $240-million route from Freighthouse Square to Lakewood is the only commuter rail segment not completed. Tacoma-to-Seattle rail service began in 2003.

In the City Council audience at the hearing, and speaking on behalf of the post-and-beam elevated railway, will be architect and mayoral candidate Jim Merritt. He's made the issue one of the stanchions of his platform.

On the dais will be his opponent, Councilwoman Marilyn Strickland, who voted with a unanimous council last January on project recommendations for Sound Transit. The ultimate decision was left to the agency, but the city said it wanted the post-and-beam design where it made sense in the corridor. Strickland sees this more as an opportunity to make the best of the final product - whatever it is - rather than a story of "heroes and villains."

The mayoral race and Sound Transit's push to complete design of the corridor are on somewhat parallel tracks. The city will elect a new mayor Nov. 3; Sound Transit wants to complete design and solicit bids on the Freighthouse Square-to-South M Street portion of the corridor by the end of the year. That timetable is necessary to get construction under way by spring so service can begin by summer 2012, Edwards said.

The project is already more than 75 percent designed. Any alterations now could cause Sound Transit to lose an entire construction season, jeopardizing $24 million in time-contingent grant funds and choking off chances for winning more, Edwards and others said.

Dome District proponents of the beam-elevated track have engineers Tom Warren and Eric Stensrud rushing to complete an alternative plan. And members of the Southwest Washington Chapter of the American Institute of Architects are designing a three-dimensional computer model they say will dramatically depict the difference between post-and-beam and berm construction. The beam-elevated track is more attractive, and because you can see beneath, there's a greater feeling of openness in the area, supporters say.

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