With freeways at capacity, Pierce County hoping mass transit can ease congestion

TACOMA, Wash. - We’re now in the homestretch of a 17-plus year effort to make the South Sound commute easier and safer for I-5 drivers.

But what state transportation officials really want you to consider is leaving your car at home altogether.

"We are at capacity with our freeways through here and we need to be thinking about mass transit and carpooling and reducing the amount of cars that we have on the freeway," WSDOT spokesperson Cara Mitchell said.

One option is the train. Sound Transit has 13 round trips daily on Sounder Rail, with more planned.

A second option - the popular ST express bus service - exists as well, capacity is starting to max out.

Sound Transit’s Geoff Patrick says that’s why building light rail for Tacoma commuters is so important

"With light rail, what you’re talking about is having a train pull up that can carry 800 people and those trains coming every few minutes, so we’re going to be able to move 8,000 or more people per hour each direction in the southern corridor on light rail," Patrick said. "That’ll make a big difference, not only for those people who are riding the train, but for everyone who’s trying to get around, because every train rider is someone who’s not trying to commute on the roads."

Light rail is scheduled to be in place for Federal Way commuters by 2024, and for Tacoma by 2030.

Even before those routes are fleshed out, lawmakers in Olympia are debating whether to lower car tab fees that pay for light rail.

Sound Transit is preparing for that possibility, working with lawmakers on other ways to cut costs.

"There are different ideas that have been pitched," Patrick said. "One idea that’s been discussed in the Senate would be that as we extend light rail down to Federal Way and all then all the way down to Tacoma, we are assuming we'll use a lot of existing public right of way to do that - and so if we were to access that for cheaper or potentially at no cost, that would make it so that we could shave millions of dollars off the tax payers price tag."

The bottom line is that the region is facing a sticky problem: As growth continues heat up, congestion will continue to build. And there’s no immediate solution.