Feds OK Amtrak rerouting; courts may be next

Staff writerMarch 5, 2013 

An $89 million project to reroute Amtrak trains through DuPont, Lakewood and South Tacoma has won key federal approval but could face a local court challenge.

State transportation officials announced Monday that the so-called Point Defiance Bypass would move forward. The Federal Railroad Administration approved the project at the end of a three-year review that determined the bypass would not adversely affect the environment.

Officials with the Washington Department of Transportation say rerouting passenger trains away from the Puget Sound waterfront would decrease travel times through the Nisqually-Tacoma corridor by up to 10 minutes, improve rail safety and allow two more trains to run between Portland and Seattle each day.

“This is a major milestone for not only this project but for customers and our entire passenger rail program,” Transportation Secretary Paula Hammond said in a statement. WSDOT is leading the project and led the review.

The decision is subject to appeal. Lakewood Mayor Don Anderson said Monday the City Council will consider its options, including going to court.

Lakewood has been the project’s most vocal critic due to public safety worries and other concerns stemming from trains speeding through the urban community at up to 79 miles per hour. Council members have said the project is being railroaded through the city because low-income neighborhoods along the tracks offer a path of least resistance.

“If this was in Seattle, there’d be a tunnel,” Anderson said Monday.

State officials say building a new route or altering the existing one is cost prohibitive. The bypass is one of nearly 20 projects in the region to improve Amtrak service between Portland and Vancouver, B.C.

Federal and state officials are promoting investment in high-speed rail as an alternative to the nation’s stressed highway system. The Obama administration announced in August it was putting the project on the fast track so the environmental review would be finished sooner.

“We really want to give people another option other than (Interstate 5) for getting between Seattle and Portland,” said Melanie Coon, spokeswoman for WSDOT’s rail division.

The decision frees the state to seek reimbursement from federal stimulus dollars to pay for the project’s design and construction. Construction is scheduled to begin in 2015, and the first trains would run on the new route two years later, officials estimate.

The $85 billion in federal spending cuts that began taking effect Friday, known as the sequester, will have no impact on the project, state officials said.

The bypass would involve constructing 3.5 miles of new track parallel to existing rail line between Lakewood and Tacoma and reconstructing the remaining single track south of Lakewood to the southern project border. The parallel track would ensure there’s enough capacity for passenger, commuter and freight trains that use it.

The project also would make safety improvements to several at-grade crossings in DuPont and Lakewood and on Joint Base Lewis-McChord. They include stationary horns and other warning devices, gates, traffic signals and sidewalks.

Lakewood officials say rail overpasses are needed, but the state responded they are too costly and could be added in the future.

The study says there would be traffic disruptions and increased noise and vibration in some areas due to the additional trains, but says they are either minor or could be minimized.

The state released its draft environmental study for public review in October. It received 62 comments, but the only significant change was the addition of a traffic study on the proposed move of Tacoma’s Amtrak Station to Freighthouse Square.

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