The Obama administration announced Monday that two transportation projects in Washington state, including a controversial rerouting of passenger trains in the South Sound, are among four projects around the country that the president wants sped up this year under his “We Can’t Wait” initiative.
For South Sound residents, it means a key federal assessment on the plan to run Amtrak trains through DuPont, Lakewood and South Tacoma will be published in the next month or so and presented in public hearings early this fall, according to state transportation officials.
The opening of the new route, however, is still at least five years away.
The project is known as the Point Defiance Bypass because it would shift passenger trains to an inland route, away from the Burlington Northern Santa Fe mainline that skirts the waterfront near Point Defiance.
The goal is to save time and improve reliability for Amtrak Cascades service. It also would allow for two additional daily round trips between Portland and Seattle, for a total of six per day.
But Lakewood officials are on record with strong concerns about how trains traveling at speeds up to 79 mph would affect traffic, safety, noise and general livability for neighbors near the tracks.
Federal and state transportation authorities have been working on the $90 million bypass for the last two years. Fourteen separate studies were completed and sent to the Federal Railway Administration for review.
Obama’s announcement Monday will push the FRA to accelerate its review process and publish its environmental assessment in September, said Melanie Coon, spokeswoman for the rail division of the Washington State Department of Transportation.
This moves up the review timeline by about six months, she said.
“Normally that process is pretty arduous and pretty lengthy,” Coon said.
The public will have a chance to comment in October, she said, and the FRA will follow with a finding of nonsignificance or significance by the end of the year.
“We’ll be under construction in 2015, if all goes well, and we’ll be using the bypass in 2017,” Coon said.
Lakewood officials, however, warn that they’re watching closely and will do what they can to slow the project if they think it’s moving too fast or doesn’t meet the city’s needs, such as for long-term traffic mitigation.
“We’ll see how this goes,” said assistant city manager Dave Bugher. “If Lakewood’s not satisfied, ultimately Lakewood will have to decide what to do. If we’re not happy with it, we may end up going to U.S. district court.”
Bugher said he didn’t take Obama’s Monday announcement as bad news.
“In a way, I’m glad that this announcement has gone out,” he said, “because that means we will be able to gear up our staff to respond.”
The other Washington project on Obama’s priority list is the Columbia River Crossing, a $3.5 billion plan to replace the Interstate 5 bridge between Washington and Oregon. The target date for completing permit and review decisions is August 2015.
The project also would extend Portland’s light rail system into Vancouver and rebuild several interchanges and miles of freeway north and south of the Columbia River.
“President Obama’s announcement today recognizes the importance the crossing has to the region,” said Washington Gov. Chris Gregoire.
“This project will provide thousands of construction jobs, as well as long-term growth in one of the most trade-dependent areas of the United States,” she added.The Associated Press and The Vancouver Columbian contributed to this report.