TACOMA — Why isn’t the Hilltop Tacoma Link Extension already carrying passengers?

A grand opening for the 2.4-mile, six-station streetcar project is likely to occur in late August, compared to its May 2022 target, at an estimated $283 million, including $65 million in overruns.

Jim Grohs, vice president of subcontractor Liberty Electric, would tell you the 4½-year-long project was postponed by its own red tape.

Liberty took the rare step of emailing elected officials on the 18-member transit board Feb. 1, to seek $7 million to $12 million for lost time and 737 extra work orders. The agency replied, “These issues are to be resolved through the contractual dispute resolution process.”

The veteran-owned business installed the line’s 340 steel poles, which support the catenary wires that power the electric streetcars. Grohs says he’s waited months for Sound Transit to approve and pay change orders when underground obstacles disrupted the pace. Liberty hoped to average four poles a day, but it could only manage one per day, shifting from spot to spot.

“The major issue with the job was the wet utilities,” he said. Conflicts with old water and sewer pipes interfered with power pole foundations that extend 15 to 20 feet deep. Liberty filed a $3 million claim last fall based on inefficiency installing catenary poles.


“I’ve had good experiences and I’ve had miserable experiences with Sound Transit, the most miserable being this one. T-100 is the toughest job we’ve ever had,” Grohs said one drizzly morning, backing his pickup away from the contractors’ storage lot.

If all requests are paid, Liberty says its $31.25 million subcontract would reach $44.75 million for materials, labor and especially time.

Sound Transit contends Liberty was unrealistic about conditions in Tacoma. “Ultimately, contractors are pricing risk. Their bids should reflect that,” spokesperson David Jackson said.

The completed Hilltop extension should attract 2,000 to 4,000 more daily riders, Sound Transit says, by serving a pair of hospitals, Wright Park, historic Stadium District, and increased housing along Martin Luther King Jr. Way South. Five streetcar vehicles will be added.

“We are working toward a quality and safe project that will open in 2023,” CEO Julie Timm said in a video message to the public. Full-power train tests are underway. The federal government awarded a $93 million low-interest loan and a $75 million grant.

Sound Transit previously acknowledged the overruns, citing incorrect locations on city utility records as one factor, when board members openly discussed project delays last year. Jackson called the Liberty Electric dispute a one-off situation, not reflective of transit jobs across the Puget Sound region.


However, some of Grohs’ frustrations overlap with findings by a technical advisory group the board recruited to guide megaproject strategy.

The panel, led by former Bay Area Rapid Transit general manager Grace Crunican, said frayed contractor relations threaten Sound Transit’s ability to attract bidders, as the agency builds future rail and bus lines in three counties, for an average $4 billion a year 2024 to 2037, “a sobering amount of work.”

Contractors told the panel they add a 15% premium to Sound Transit bids, to cover extra financial risks. Given a choice, they prefer to work for other agencies,” reported panelist Connie Crawford, director of rail and transit projects for ASTM North America.

A year’s wait, to collect hundreds of thousands of dollars, is especially hard for small and minority-owned subcontractors, Crawford said.

The experts said front-line engineers for Sound Transit can only approve changes under $50,000, so anything higher must be kicked upstairs for decisions.

“A $50,000 decision that is delayed for months can cost you millions of dollars,” Crawford said, if a whole project gets thrown out of sequence.


The panel urged Timm to assure changes are handled within 60 days. Timm is scheduled to issue a formal response Thursday.

The expert panelists interviewed eight companies’ representatives at the Association of General Contractors, whose Vice President David D’Hondt declined to reveal which firms participated. “We refer to the report,” he said. Liberty Electric wasn’t involved.

Pierce County Executive Bruce Dammeier, a transit-board member, said Hilltop Link reflects woes the expert report found regionwide.

“When this project started to go sideways, that’s when you’ve got to intervene,” said Dammeier, a former Navy engineering officer. “It’s like a car that’s starting to slip on ice. If you recognize what’s happening and correct quickly you can guide it down a path. But it you wait too long, you’re in a ditch.”

Dammeier recalled being alarmed early in the project, when he observed roads in the Stadium District torn open and repaved, three times. The impact to the community was”egregious,” he said.

“The street would be closed for even weeks or months at a time,” said Clay Gleb, owner of Stadium Thriftway. Disruptions have been much fewer lately, and he’s hopeful the streetcars will encourage hospital workers, and renters in new apartments, to visit the store.


To prevent a repeat, Dammeier suggests ground-penetrating radar. “If you spent $2 million to accurately map the underground utilities, it’s a different project,” he said.

Fellow board member Kent Keel of University Place recalls being contacted by general contractor Walsh Group and some subcontractors, and Keel urged the staff to resolve the issues. Chicago-based Walsh, which signed a $126 million contract, declined an interview request. Sound Transit’s capital-progress report mentions a budget risk of claims by Walsh.

“Flawed and over optimistic”

Sound Transit’s resident engineer denied most of a $3.8 million claim Walsh filed on Clackamas, Ore.-based Liberty’s behalf regarding 107 catenary poles, affected by utilities, boulders, timbers and concrete.

“It is unreasonable for an experienced contractor to assume that for about 350 planned excavations in old city streets, no existing utilities would be encountered,” the June 2022 response said. Liberty did get paid $547,000 total for some locations, the document said.

But the agency said Liberty’s goal of four poles per day was “flawed and over optimistic.” Crews would have needed 1,000-foot work zones, along with city of Tacoma goodwill to block off 300-foot zones on short notice. That wasn’t going to happen given a requirement to maintain two-way street traffic, it said. Builders also couldn’t save time by leaving unfinished foundation holes overnight, nor by stockpiling materials along the street instead of hauling them each morning from a fenced yard. Sound Transit said claim notices were filed late.

Liberty countered that Sound Transit ignored its own design errors and “poor administration.”


“One of the things I learned is, your contract documents have got to be tight and clear,” board member Keel said. “Two, you have to have a team, not just Sound Transit, but teams that are committed to coming together, to have a successful project.”

Custom poles

Liberty hit turbulence on Commerce Street, a critical point where new rails, a switch and a rebuilt Old City Hall station connect to the existing downtown line.

One new pole was moved away, to solve a utility conflict requiring a substitute pole uphill on Stadium Way. Then to replace that missing pole on Commerce, the pole Liberty took from another site was longer and heavier, so workers cut it and ordered stronger bolt washers. At another foundation a bit north, the greenbelt soils were weak, so Liberty ordered a custom spool-shaped steel adapter, so extra-strength bolts could be fastened through wider bolt-holes.

Liberty Electric filed the first of three change-order requests in August 2021, which took 216 days for final Sound Transit signoff, while the company was reimbursed for 66% of its costs, according to Liberty senior project manager Ross Good.

“It was one little example of how the whole project went. Nobody at the project level is empowered to do anything,” Grohs said. “When there’s no resolution, it breeds animosity.”

In a separate phase, Grohs acknowledges the company cast flawed pole foundations in the first months, December 2018 to April 2019, causing the firm to rebuild some and hire different personnel. “I take responsibility for that portion of the work,” he said.


Sound Transit’s tight rein evolved since the early 2000s, a when money shortages nearly sunk the agency. “There historically had been some people at the top who did not want to be out of the loop, on these kinds of changes,” said task force member Eric Goldwyn, a professor at New York University.

Ron Lewis, Sound Transit director of design, engineering and construction management, answers: “I believe we take very seriously our obligation and commitment to the public we are going to manage the public’s money well, and with discipline, and our budget control system has allowed us to do that very effectively. I view that as a positive. Having said that, we’re looking at opportunities to improve.”

The agency commonly waits until the end to negotiate and pay final change order amounts, Goldwyn said. Big companies like Skanska, building elevated tracks in Mountlake Terrace and Lynnwood, can wait on cash flow, but “these smaller companies, they can’t continue paying their bills,” he said.

Grohs said he went public because litigation against the big agency is unrealistic, and anyway he won’t bid again with Sound Transit anytime soon. “I want resolution with Sound Transit outside of court.” he said.

“The taxpayers are giving Sound Transit billions of dollars. People are paying astronomically large fees for their [car] tabs, and paying an extra sales tax for all of this work. I think everyone should be frustrated that these projects are costing way more than they should, or taking longer than they should.”

Iconic curve

During train tests, Sound Transit discovered a final challenge with track geometry in the Stadium District, where trains climb and curve simultaneously for a rough ride. An examination by engineering experts confirmed the curve is safe, and after some rail grinding, the trackway is fit for passenger service, project director Madeleine Greathouse said. Train wheels rumbled during a late-night test this month, unlike the silky straightaway ride on MLK Way.


While thanking the team for its perseverance, Keel found a silver lining in the tough topography.

“You turn around and look over your shoulder, you get a great view — water, houses, all of that in Tacoma. I just believe that over time, it’s going to be iconic, much like … San Francisco,” he told board members. “I’m not trying to compare it to San Francisco.”

Indeed, their cable car scenes don’t measure up to Mount Rainier, elevation 14,410 feet, when it wears a fluffy toque.