Downtown Tacoma light rail extension hits construction issue

The Hilltop Tacoma Link Extension construction project hit another hiccup this month. The project to…

The Hilltop Tacoma Link Extension construction project hit another hiccup this month.

The project to lengthen the Tacoma Link to Stadium District and Hilltop has been delayed twice previously.

Sound Transit’s expansion construction shut down several blocks of Commerce Street starting Aug. 1. The intersection at South 9th and Commerce streets reopened on schedule Sept. 17, but the South 7th intersection remained closed due to a construction issue.

While completing final systems-testing for the project, areas of stray electrical current were found under a segment of newly installed track, which could cause corrosion of nearby underground utilities and other infrastructure but is not a hazard. Sound Transit contractors returned to the tracks to find the source of the current.

“We’re going to get the job done and get the job done right,” said David Jackson, Sound Transit’s public information officer.

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Construction crews work on a project to connect the Hilltop Link Extension to Tacoma Link on South 7th and Commerce streets in downtown Tacoma, Wash. on Sept. 20, 2022. Cheyenne Boone Cheyenne Boone/The News Tribune

Construction for South 7th and Commerce will be finished by Oct. 15, Jackson said.

Shuttle buses continue to operate instead of T Link between Tacoma Dome and Theater District.

The Link extension construction began November 2018 and was set to be completed in May and cost $217 million, but due to supply problems, additional work and pricier parts, the extension will now be completed in the first quarter of 2023 and cost $282 million. The project is funded by a partnership with Sound Transit, city of Tacoma, Federal Transit and other grant sources.

The project will double the length of Tacoma Link, relocate the Theater District station and add six stations. The 2.4 mile route extension connects downtown with the Stadium District, Wright Park, hospitals and Hilltop. Five streetcars will be added. The fourth car will arrive Friday, Jackson said.

Businesses along the Link extension have felt the impacts of construction.

Steve Smith, owner of Handlebar Cycling Studio, has considered moving his business from 715 Commerce St. because of his frustrations. He said he has lost customers because they have been unable to find parking or have encountered road closures making them late to classes. Smith said he had to implement deals to retain customers.

The construction has affected the business for longer than the recent Commerce Street closure. When the cycling boutique studio was able to hold in-person classes again in 2020, it immediately lost street parking. Nearby street parking is limited, but customers could access a parking garage nearby. Smith said the garage was unsafe and he had to install security lights.

Sound Transit offered parking at South 9th and Commerce streets.

Smith also said communication has been limited and that he didn’t learn about the Commerce Street closure until a couple days before. He also was not aware how long the delayed construction would take.

“It really feels like they don’t know what they’re doing,” Smith said.

He added he’s never seen construction go this slowly.

Smith said he wants to stay at the location because he has invested in the studio by putting in new speakers and mirrors and the extension might create more activity downtown.

Jackson said Sound Transit has engagement staff working in the field to meet with business owners, promotes Tacoma residents patronizing local businesses and is “always willing to talk.” He added he thanks businesses for their patience.

Stadium Thriftway, the grocery store at 618 N 1st St., has gotten past the main construction. Clay Gleb, vice president of Stadium Thriftway, said in the year and a half that his family has owned the store, the construction has been relatively minimal, such as installing lighting and crosswalks.

He said parking has been affected. The grocery store has a parking lot, and other businesses’ employees and customers are using the lot because of the lack of street parking.

Gleb said one of the appeals of purchasing Stadium Thriftway was the eventual completion of the Link extension. He said it would make the grocery store a more desirable place to work by attracting those without a car who can access Tacoma Link.

Liz Moomey covers the city of Tacoma for The News Tribune. She was previously a Report For America corps member covering Eastern Kentucky for the Lexington Herald-Leader.