Light Rail Progress can be contacted at:
Light Rail Progress
Tacoma's brand-new light rail transit streetcar (what Europeans call a tram) has been on a roll – exceeding its ridership projections (by years in advance), and achieving the central-city redevelopment goals planners had hoped for. At just 1.6 miles in length through downtown Tacoma, Tacoma Link is by far the shortest modern LRT system yet installed in a North American city. (See Tacoma Link Light Rail Streetcar Line Heads Toward Startup and Tacoma Streetcar Brings Modern Electric Rail Transit to Puget Sound.) And, while its $80.4-million cost was steep, it's built to eventually accommodate the much heavier trains (with provision for conversion to their 1500-VDC power supply) of Sound Transit's regional Link interurban LRT system – of which the first segment, heading into the Rainier Valley, is now under construction.
Ridership ... up and up
The Tacoma public have taken to the streetcar with gusto.
Ridership growth has been nothing short of spectacular. While
Sound Transit projected that Tacoma Link would carry 2,000
rider-trips a day by 2010, the 1.6 mile-line exceeded that number
on eight of the first 13 weekdays that Tacoma Link was in
operation - leading King County Executive and Sound Transit
board chairman Ron Sims to declare that "This clearly shows that
people are ready to park their cars and take advantage of
convenient and reliable transit options."
The streetcar service has continued to exceed
its ridership forecasts. By the end of September 2003, the average for the first
month of operation had reached about 2,170 boardings on weekdays. "People now realize
they can park for free at the Tacoma Dome Station and it's only seven minutes to Ninth and Commerce"
observed Lind Simonsen, Pierce Transit spokesman, to a Tacoma
News Tribune reporter. "That's exactly what the station was
designed to do: Keep cars out of the downtown area."
Apparently, the streetcar operation alone was even prompting occasional transit users to take advantage of the new service more frequently. "I've talked to people who now are making the trip down to Freighthouse Square twice a week where they used to do it once a month" Simonsen related.
By early January 2004, average weekday rider-trips had hit more
than 2,300 a day. So, what's been attracting riders onto the
streetcars? A major factor seems to be the convenience of not
having to fight for scarce parking. Paul Ellis, a senior manager for
the Tacoma-Pierce County Chamber of Commerce, told the
Tacoma News Tribune he believes that the new Link LRT service
enables many downtown workers, who can't afford to pay for
expensive monthly off-street parking, to park in a remote location
(Tacoma Dome) and get to their offices, rather than to park on the
street and risk getting a parking ticket.
In addition, of course, is the special attractiveness of rail transit – comfortable, spacious vehicles; a fast, quiet, smooth ride; a well-defined, clearly understandable route; well-defined stations with useful amenities; and an ambience of reliability and safety.
Understandable route, reliable service, and
fast, comfortable ride have combined to attract new passengers to Tacoma Link streetcars.
But improving mobility options and reducing street and parking congestion have been only one of the major goals of the Tacoma Link streetcar system. Another critical objective has been to stimulate vigorous real estate development and contribute to the ongoing revitalization of downtown Tacoma. This strategy apparently has been meeting with overwhelming success.
Helped substantially by the streetcar construction project and the
advent of regional "heavy" rail passenger service, Tacoma's
downtown had been experiencing a kind of rebirth even before the
Tacoma Link service started. But since the LRT service began in
late August, things have really been booming for businesses that
managed to endure the long wait. Even as early as the end of
September 2003, the local streetcar service combined with the
Sounder regional rail service to help feed what the Tacoma News
Tribune called "an emerging commuter economy" located at the
Dome District warehouse, "home to more than three dozen shops, restaurants and offices."
Focusing on a 108,000-square-foot shopping center called
Freighthouse Square (see photo below), the News Tribune
reported that "In the past month, many shop owners have seen an
increase in business after more than three years of construction
headaches that accompanied Sound Transit rail lines built on
either side of the three-block-long building." While construction of
the LRT system, plus other construction projects, had impaired
access to adjacent businesses and made it hard for them to stay
afloat, "That's all changing" reported the News Tribune.
Freighthouse Square: Tacoma Link
streetcar service has sparked development and helped business profitability surge.
The News Tribune found another example in the Hairartz salon, whose owner, hair stylist Michael Smith, estimates that his store's profits have increased 25 to 30 percent with the advent of rail service. Like other shops, most of his salon's new business has come from Tacoma Link during lunchtime, he told the News Tribune reporter.
"Smith is not just an enthusiastic business owner," reports the paper, "he's also a Link rider. When he wants a break, he hops on the streetcar and rides to a Starbucks coffee shop downtown and returns within 20 minutes or so."
"I am so psyched with it" Smith enthused to the newspaper as he worked in his shop. "Now, I think the train should be built through the city and to Point Defiance."
The News Tribune article goes on to report that "Business owners say downtown shoppers, college students and area workers are riding the streetcar to Freighthouse." Earlier that week, it related, "... Elton Gatewood, neighborhood council coordinator for the City of Tacoma, chatted over Thai food with a lunch companion after riding Link for the first time from his City Hall job. Gatewood stopped going to Freighthouse during construction."
"Now there's no driving, no hassle" Gatewood told the reporter. "It's a chance to refresh yourself to meet the 1 o'clock grind."
The article also focused on Lyn Thompson, business manager for the Freighthouse development, who it said "has a vision that the square will become a virtual center of the community, framed by the streetcar, commuter trains, Pierce Transit, Sound Transit Express buses and free parking."
Tacoma's revitalization success has attracted national attention.
in late October 2003, a delegation of 50 community leaders from
Rockford, illinois and its vicinity – organized by the Rockford Area
Chamber of Commerce – visited Tacoma "hoping to find lessons
here that could be applied back home."
"In downtown Tacoma, the sounds of rebirth, reuse and
reclamation are everywhere" reported the Rockford Register Star.
This included "The rat-a-tat-tat of jackhammers, the rumble of
heavy equipment getting ready to lift another girder, move another
load. Construction's all around."
But the delegation was also impressed by "The whisper of electric light rail cars along tracks that stretch about two miles through downtown."
Adam Lowenstein‚ the Register Star reporter and a member of the delegation, seemed particularly impressed with Puget Sound's progress in regional public transport:
Lowenstein and other delegation members seemed equally impressed with the new Tacoma Link streetcar service and its impact in helping to attract development and help accomplish downtown revitalization objectives: "The light rail, while serving to reduce the number of automobiles downtown, has also stimulated development downtown as businesses spring up along the route."
Finally, in early February 2004, the Tacoma News Tribune focused on another example of a business location decision in which the availability of Tacoma Link rail service was a key factor – the opening of a downtown Tacoma phonecall center by Credit Advisors Foundation, a large national debt counseling firm. "The opening marks one of the first signals that our $80 million investment in the downtown commuter train has the power to pull in out-of-town businesses" observed the News Tribune reporter.
Phil Natsiopoulos, national enrollment director for Credit Advisors,
was enthusiastic about his company's decision to locate in
Tacoma's revitalizing downtown, with convenient, high-quality rail
transit at his door. "The major reason we made Tacoma our new
location is the light rail. It was sexy to us" Natsiopoulos told the
A variety of factors influenced the location decision, the article notes. One of these was the Harmon Building itself, strategically located in central-city Tacoma with convenient shops and restaurants within an easy walk. "But" the article relates, "the Harmon's charm still would not have worked without Link, the light-rail system."
Bottom line to this story: Another clear example of the amazing and unique power of rail transit – even a tiny tramway or streetcar system – to pull motorists out of their cars, and to pull in new business development as transit-oriented development to help achieve urban revitalization goals.
Tacoma's streetcar is a powerful example
of how even a very modest rail transit line can contribute to urban revitalization.
Light Rail Now! website