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caption: Tacoma Link Light Rail 
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Tacoma Link Light Rail
Credit: KUOW Photo/Joshua McNichols

Tacoma Hopes Light Rail Connection To Seattle Gets Funded

Politicians in Olympia are negotiating the final size of a transportation package. But we found out this week it may not be as much as some people hoped. Transit advocates hope the final package will pay to extend light rail from Seattle to Everett and Tacoma.

KUOW’s Joshua McNichols went to Tacoma to find out more.


Kimberly Ketcham works for the Washington State History Museum. She says in the early 1900s, trains used to carry workers between Seattle and Tacoma.

Ketcham: "We had a lot of factory workers that were here in Tacoma. Hence the long standing comment about the 'aroma of Tacoma' because downtown Tacoma with the tide flats has always been an industrial area."

Today, Tacoma smells a lot better. There’s still a kind of train carrying workers downtown, but it’s not the same. It’s called Tacoma Link Light Rail, and it only runs from one end of downtown Tacoma to the other.

Carol Unkrur has been driving the route for almost eight years. I decide to tease her about the short length of her route.

McNichols: "What do you tell people when your friends say 'Oh, you drive that line? That doesn’t go anywhere.'"

Unkrur: "I say, 'Yes, we’re only 1.6 miles, but we do provide a good service for downtown Tacoma.' And a lot of tourists, they’ll ask us questions like where to go and how to get there, so it’s a good service."

The heavy lifting – bringing commuters to Seattle – is done by buses and the Sounder commuter train. But neither of those services are perfect. Buses must compete with car traffic, and the Sounder train only runs during rush hour.

In contrast, this little trolley runs every 12 minutes.

If that kind of frequent service extended to Seattle, it could have a big impact. Surveys conducted by the history museum suggest many people drive cars to Tacoma to visit a single museum. Then they get out of town quickly in order to beat traffic.

That’s bad for the historic Rialto Theater.

Westhoff: "Echo!"

Manager Jake Westhoff shows off the theater’s acoustics.

Westhoff: "You can hear a little bit of the echo already but it’s like … "

Westhoff claps twice.

The history museum’s survey suggests frequent light rail could encourage people to stick around for a show at this theater, because with light rail, there’s always another train a little later.

Westhoff: "Anything that makes it easier for people to get here is great."

Recently, Sound Transit’s funding for light rail expansion came under threat. In Olympia, state Senators capped the region’s ability to tax itself for rail at $11 billion. It’s not certain that’s enough to get to Tacoma. Sound Transit had asked for $15 billion.

That number in the transportation package could change, as the bill makes its way into the state house, where the amount of funding will be negotiated again. The house could take up the issue in a couple of weeks.