Washington state's plans to reroute its Amtrak Cascades trains through Lakewood are meeting stiff opposition. The reroute would bypass the so-called Point Defiance route that the trains currently follow along the Puget Sound shoreline between Tacoma and Nisqually.
The bypass would shave six minutes off Portland-to-Seattle trips, and could ultimately facilitate a Sound Transit expansion to Olympia — but that's not enough to mollify trackside communities.
Upgrading the inland bypass to allow operation of fast passenger trains has been planned by the state Department of Transportation (WSDOT) since1995, according to Ron Pate, high-speed rail program manager at the department's Rail and Marine Office. But the project received a big boost from the recent arrival of federal stimulus funds.
That funding will cover the entire $91.6 million cost of the project, defined as the upgrade of the 13.5 miles of track from Lakewood to Nisqually. Upgrades to the Tacoma-Lakewood segment already have been nearly completed in anticipation of Sound Transit's 2012 introduction of its Sounder service as far south as Lakewood. The infusion of funds means that seven Amtrak round-trips will be running daily over the new route by 2017, two years earlier than the state had previously planned.
Even the 2017 deadline, binding under the terms of the federal grant, seems a long way off, however, as a mountain of environmental documentation must be assembled and a torrent of protests from adjacent communities must be reckoned with.
David Anderson, who heads the neighborhood association in Lakewood's Tillicum district, along whose edge the trains would zoom by at up to 79 mph, says that some local residents would drop their opposition in return for certain mitigations but that “the majority position is that we don't want Amtrak through here at all.” He knows of only one Tillicum resident who approves of the current plan.
Amtrak operates the Cascades corridor trains under contract from WSDOT, which is responsible for the service's overall development.
Anderson's group stands with the cities of DuPont and Lakewood, which have both passed resolutions opposing the WSDOT plan as currently formulated. The Clover Park School District, which serves the entirety of Lakewood, has filed a similar statement. Lakewood's resolution states that WSDOT has “disregarded” city concerns, safety paramount among them. For a time, DuPont's city website included a colorful page announcing a January public meeting on the project. The page — headlined “What Will the 'Amtrak Invasion' Cost You?” — excoriated Amtrak on several points. The city took the page down after Crosscut inquired about it.
Sound Transit owns virtually the entire 20 miles of the route, on which freight is carried by Tacoma Rail under terms of an easement with the commuter provider. The traffic amounts to four to six trains weekly.
In contrast to the Cascades, the Sounder expansion enjoys Lakewood's support. The Sounder trains would not exceed 40 mph, but Amtrak's trains would hit their 79-mph limit on most of the route, and wouldn't stop anywhere between Tacoma and Lacey, the stop that would serve Olympia.
The Burlington Northern Santa Fe (BNSF) Railway, which owns the Point Defiance route now used by Amtrak, “will need that line more than was anticipated a decade ago, and they and WSDOT definitely felt that the bypass was the best [solution],” explains Lloyd Flem, executive director of All Aboard Washington, a passenger rail advocacy group. “The total volume of freight is continuing to grow.”
Flem's group supports the project. “We’re not wildly enthusiastic about it, but I accept the wisdom and necessity of it now. Some of the most physically attractive scenery on the Northwest Corridor will be gone,” he adds, referring to the views passengers get along the more roundabout shoreline route.
Initial funding plans for the bypass project required only a so-called document of categorical exclusion from the federal government, lessening the need for environmental review, and that document was issued in 2008. However, receipt of the stimulus funds, which WSDOT applied for instead in 2009, required a more elaborate environmental assessment, entailing a range of social concerns and “a lot of community involvement,” Pate says.
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