Tacoma business owners blame light rail expansion for massive loss of revenue

TACOMA -- Business owners in Tacoma said they have struggled with massive revenue losses because of Sound Transit’s construction project to expand the light rail system. Several roads were closed in the area, including Stadium Way, as crews worked to install railing in the ground.

Salamone’s Pizzeria is located on Stadium Way. Victor Mitchell, the restaurant’s head chef, said they’ve seen a dramatic decline in the number of customers coming through their doors.

“It’s very, very hard to find a place to park within a couple of blocks in walking distance. It’s hard to pick a restaurant where you’re going to have to take a walk first,” said Mitchell. “The constant complaints of having to park far away and then walk up to our doors. It’s tough, especially for a quick lunch—you want to be in and out quick and you got to take a 15-minute walk first. Makes it a little bit tougher.”

Scott Thompson, a public information officer with Sound Transit, said voters approved the Hilltop-Tacoma Link Extension proposal in 2008. Some voters, like Donald McClintock, said they were happy to see the expansion come to their neighborhood.

“I think it’s outstanding because the thing is we’re going to have a lot of people coming and going,” said McClintock.

Thompson explained the 2.4-mile extension would start near the Theater District in downtown Tacoma, through Stadium District, curve around through the Hilltop Neighborhood and end at MLK and 19th. He said, as of August 2019, crews completed roughly 30 percent of the construction project.

“A lot of the major work we’ve been doing is relocating and moving a lot of the underground utilities. You’re talking water, storm water, energy lines, there’s internet and cable lines. All that stuff is getting moved around,” said Thompson. “We’re now getting to the point where we’re actually putting tracks for the new line into the roadway. And it’s actually at-grade line, so the lines will be in the road.”

The owner of Salamone’s Pizzeria said his restaurant lost about $60,000 in revenue over the summer due to construction. He explained people had a hard time finding the restaurant through detours and there was minimal parking.

Some business owners impacted by the construction and road closures wanted to know why Sound Transit would not help reimburse them for lost revenue.

“We legally cannot do that. That’s considered a gift of public funds and it’s against state law to do something like that. So, we don’t have any option to financially reimburse for loss of revenue,” said Thompson.

To offer some relief, Sound Transit pays for marketing and advertising for impacted businesses through its “Loyal to the Local” program. Many of the advertisements are featured on places like social media, gas stations, trains, light rails and signs, to name a few.

“We want to highlight them and make sure people know that they’re open and we can help drive business to them during the construction period,” said Thompson. “We understand there’s a lot of pain and anguish as we build the project. But I think the long-term gain is going to really benefit Tacoma in the long run.”

Thompson said Sound Transit reached out to all businesses impacted by construction and invited them to participate in the program.  He said, however, only 13 companies took advantage of the opportunity. Mitchell said Salamone’s Pizzeria signed up for it.

“A couple signs out front, a couple of pamphlets dropped off, but not too much energy, I feel, has been put into that,” said Mitchell.

Thompson said Sound Transit’s goal is to launch service on the new rail in the year 2022.

“The transit is going to draw people. It’s going to get people more mobility, to get people out of their cars and not worry about parking and be able to get around downtown Tacoma,” said Thompson.

Mitchell and people like Jackie Kaiser who live near the construction, say they look forward to the day the streets in their neighborhood will reopen.

“Meanwhile, I guess we just have to suffer and deal with the noise and the dust,” said Kaiser.