Published October 06, 2012
Sounder train stop is unlikely for Olympia but possible in DuPontROB CARSON
Sound Transit threw a public party Saturday to celebrate completion of its $325 million extension south to Lakewood. At 4:42 Monday morning, commuters will board the first Sounder train leaving Lakewood for Tacoma and Seattle. Sound Transit predicts the Lakewood station will have between 560 and 740 boardings a day. The 8.5-mile extension is a long-awaited link that backers say will relieve South Sound highway congestion and make life easier for thousands of South Sound residents, including military personnel at Joint Base Lewis-McChord. With the Lakewood extension now complete after more than 16 years, will Sounder service ever continue south to DuPont and possibly as far as Olympia? Those extensions have great appeal for their potential to help relieve heavy traffic congestion on Interstate 5, particularly in the vicinity of Lewis-McChord. But there are daunting financial challenges. The City of DuPont lies within the boundaries of Sound Transit’s taxing authority, which encompasses the most populated urban areas of Pierce, King and Snohomish counties. Thurston County is not in the taxing district, which makes the extension of service to Olympia more complicated and expensive. It also has kept Sound Transit from doing any ridership or cost projections. Sound Transit owns track from Lakewood nearly all the way to the Pierce-Thurston County line at the Nisqually River, which means service to DuPont is at least in the realm of possibility. “Sounder service to DuPont is identified as a potential partnership project,” said Kimberly Reason, a Sound Transit spokeswoman. “What that means is that if another entity were to bring financing, we could run Sounder service there.” Somebody else would have to come up with the money, Reason said, and no one has come forward. No studies have been done to estimate costs, Reason said, “but it’s clearly beyond our current financial capability.” Sound Transit would like to establish service to Olympia, Reason said, but that would require a rail interchange agreement with BNSF, annexing Thurston County into the Sound Transit taxing district and coming up with a significant capital outlay to pay for more trains, track and signal improvements and property acquisitions along the right-of-way. “We are open to talking to potential partners,” Reason said. “Obviously, we’d like to see more passengers use commuter rail service, but funding is a big hurdle. “Thurston County officials have expressed an interest every few years or so,” she said, “but given these hurdles, once the conversation takes place, it hasn’t moved any further. “The realities of the current economy are such that I think that poses a restraint on further conversations.” Like getting Sounder to Olympia, landing the Lakewood extension was anything but easy. Extending the commuter train service to Lakewood appeared in Sound Transit’s plans in 1996, when it was one of the projects for which voters in Pierce, King and Snohomish counties agreed to increase their taxes. The transit authority initially promised the extension by 2001, but delays in planning and trouble acquiring rights of way stalled the project. Meanwhile, construction of the $33 million Lakewood station went forward without the trains.