Blowing the whistle on plans to shift Amtrak’s route south of Tacoma

An Amtrak Cascades train Credit: Eric/Wikimedia Commons

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.

“Also, the community wants [the new assessment],” he adds.

Organized local opposition dates from 2006, when Lakewood’s city council started questioning the WSDOT plans. “We’ve probably had close to 40 public outreach programs so far,” Pate reports, adding that more lie ahead.

“A lot of it is nimbyism,” Flem comments on the project’s slow pace. “There are ways of stalling it.”

The protests focus on safety, but the sticking points are many. Fears that the value of trackside properties will decline invite the question of whether it’s fair for those who own property adjacent to a 100-year-old-plus railroad to object if the railroad’s owner decides to run more trains.

“That’s a fair argument,” concedes Jeff Brewster, communications director for the city of Lakewood. He adds, however, that the city got the business community’s message “loud and clear: ‘The trains are going to degrade my property value and degrade my making a living.’ The city needs to acknowledge those concerns.”

Flem counters that the alleged threat to property values is “literally the opposite of what has happened in the last 20 years where passenger rail has been developed — Dallas, Salt Lake City, Denver, Portland.” Those examples, however, involve commuter rail development, not the long-distance Amtrak trains at the crux of the bypass debate.

Anderson directs much of his criticism at Amtrak itself, saying, “Amtrak has its own train track to run on, on the waterfront along Puget Sound.”

In fact the national passenger rail provider only owns a few hundred miles of track, all of it in the Midwest and East; elsewhere, it uses track owned by freight companies like BNSF, or local entities like Sound Transit.

“Train accidents happen,” Anderson continues. “Trespassers are killed. Were it not for the American Recovery Act funding, this wouldn’t be taking place. It doesn’t make economic sense. Amtrak is proving an economic drain.”

Anderson concedes that the hundreds of trespassers killed annually on U.S. railroads are acting illegally, but says the accidents still must be taken into account. He says that a grade separation — an overpass — that would leave Tillicum’s crucial street connection to I-5 undisturbed isn’t going to happen, because WSDOT takes the view, he says, that “it’s too expensive. it’s unsightly, it’s a graffiti magnet, and it’s a gang hangout.”

Pate takes exception to Anderson’s attribution of such sentiments to the state. “We’re working through the environmental assessment,” he says. “We have to do a review of the traffic data and impacts, and if mitigations are necessary, we will make them. We’re not to that point yet.”

Lakewood’s Brewster, meanwhile, disclaims another popular objection: that the fast trains will threaten motorists accustomed to tempting fate by inching across grade crossings, and even stopping on them, in traffic jams. “That’s not the city’s position. Those are comments that come out of neighborhood meetings. If you obey the traffic laws, that’s not an issue.”

Asked if residents would drop their opposition if Amtrak trains stopped at the future Sounder station in Lakewood, rather than speeding by, he says, “I’ve heard at least one council member float that out in a public meeting. We talked about it internally — would there be a benefit from that from an economic development standpoint.” He adds, however, that the city has not raised the possibility with Olympia.

However effective the promise of a stop on the national passenger-rail network might be as an olive branch, though, WSDOT feels that its hands are tied by assumptions contained within the existing Cascades program. “We’ve agreed to certain timetables,” Pate says. Introducing a new stop means adding about five minutes to a train’s schedule, setting up a rob-Peter-to-pay-Paul situation. Assumptions could, of course, change, he says, “if electeds determine that’s the right thing.”

It took local activists several years, however, to get Cascades trains to stop at Stanwood, in Snohomish County — and they had active support from state senator Mary Margaret Haugen (D-Camano Island), who represents Stanwood and chairs the Senate Transportation Committee.

Mitigation of problems like train-horn noise and grade-crossing dangers have become the routine recourse when rail development plans encounter community opposition, as they often do. The community and the rail provider essentially strike a deal. Grade crossings can be made safer with four-arm gates or lane dividers that prevent imprudent drivers from going around gates. Fixed wayside horns near crossings warn motorists and travelers effectively, but are not nearly as loud as locomotive horns. Culverts can guide pedestrians safely underneath the tracks.

Pate emphasizes that local communities enjoy representation on the committees considering possible mitigations. “We’re not trying to do this in a dark closet,” he puts it. Even with a commitment to compromise on the part of WSDOT and local residents, however, getting to yes is likely to take years. The stimulus grant mandates project completion by 2017. What if things really get bogged down?

“It can’t go past then,” Pate responds, “and we have no projections that it will.”

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