Like many businesses in Tacoma’s Dome District, the Lighthouse Diving Center suffered plenty during the construction of Sound Transit’s new railroad link to Lakewood.
For nearly two years, the little block building on the corner of 25th Street and Pacific Avenue was isolated by the massive civil engineering project necessary to get Sounder trains across Pacific and up the grade into Nalley Valley.
“A lot of people thought we were closed,” said Randy Bierbaum, who manages the dive shop along with Molly, his well-fed Labrador retriever. “Everything was so torn up they couldn’t figure out how to get here.”
Now, at long last, the $325 million rail extension project is finished.
Sound Transit threw a public party Saturday to celebrate, with free train rides, music and ribbon-cutting, and at 4:42 Monday morning, commuters will board the first Sounder train leaving Lakewood for Tacoma and Seattle.
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.
Sound Transit predicts the Lakewood station will have between 560 and 740 total boardings each day.
The Lakewood run looks easy now. The trip to Freighthouse Square takes just 11 minutes, including the stop at the South Tacoma station, and it’s such a smooth ride it barely ripples a cup of coffee.
But for Sound Transit, getting to this point has been anything but easy. The struggle has lasted for more than 16 years.
16 YEARS IN THE MAKING
Extending commuter train service to Lakewood first 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. The station opened in September 2008.
Sound Transit also spent $11.5 million on a less-elaborate South Tacoma station, a platform with ticket kiosks and shelters between South 56th and South 60th streets, at Washington Street. A parking lot across the tracks from the platform holds about 220 cars.
The most difficult part of the Lakewood extension, both politically and from an engineering standpoint, was the 1.4 miles of track that extend from Freighthouse Square to M Street in Tacoma.
That section, which cost $162 million, has the steepest grade in the Sounder system and cuts through the heart of Tacoma’s transportation and utility core. Building it required dramatic regrading and diverting sewage and storm-drain pipes big enough to walk through.
The grade in that section of the line is 2.85 percent, a slope that, according to Sound Transit’s rail project manager Eric Beckman, places it among the steepest railroad grades in the country.
After the commuter line opens Monday, Beckman said, no trains shorter than a locomotive and three cars will make the descent to Freighthouse Square. Shorter trains would not have enough braking capacity.
Testing in recent weeks included simulated passenger runs in which trains followed the projected schedule but did not pick up passengers.
Locomotives pushed and pulled empty passenger cars along the route at speeds up to 60 miles per hour so technicians could fine-tune braking systems, crossing equipment and remote tracking operations.
The only unforeseen difficulty of any significance during the testing, said Kimberly Reason, a Sound Transit spokeswoman, was caused by rust on the older, existing track on the route from M Street through South Tacoma, which was weathered from disuse.
“It was interfering with the automatic sensing instruments at some crossings,” Reason said.
The problem was solved by bringing in special track grinders to polish off the rust, she said.
The new rail extension has 17 at-grade crossings, which has raised concerns about accidents along the route where drivers and pedestrians are unaccustomed to railroad traffic. During testing, the crossings also annoyed South Tacoma drivers unused to backups on cross streets.
Sound Transit launched a safety education program earlier this year to raise public awareness about train safety.
Train traffic on the route is likely to increase dramatically in about five years, when Amtrak is expected to switch its passenger trains to the Lakewood route from its route along Puget Sound and around Point Defiance.
In the meantime, Bierbaum couldn’t be happier about how things have turned out for the Dome District. Some of it is simple relief that the work is finally done, but he says he also likes what the project did for the neighborhood.
The Pacific Avenue crossing required dropping the busy arterial 18 feet and removing 550,000 tons of earth. The excavation, which looked like an open-pit mine for much of last year, left the dive shop standing on a promontory that gives it good visibility from all sides.
“Our business stands out more than ever,” Bierbaum said. “We’re kind of like stuck up here on the top of the hill.”
He also likes the fact that the old hotel, Kings Inn, notorious for prostitution and drug use, stood in the path of the train tracks and had to be removed.
“It’s actually cleaned up the neighborhood,” he said. “We used to have to pick up syringes all the time.”
The new rail link is getting good reviews throughout the Dome District.
Most of the angry talk about the berm over Pacific – some feared it would divide the district like a great wall – ended once the railroad bed was built and landscaped.
“We’d been concerned about how it was going to look, but we’re happy with it,” said Mike Goldby, the co-owner of Friesenburgers cafe on East 26th Street.
“It turned out nice,” he said. “It’s really helped the traffic flow.”
After all the angst before and during construction, the biggest complaint now concerns the racket made by all the warning blasts that sound every time a train nears a street crossing.
“It’s just noisy as hell when they go through here,” said Bob May, Goldby’s business partner. “You can’t hear. It just blares this whole place out.”
Another former source of anxiety – and a lawsuit – was how close the new tracks would come to the Tacoma Rescue Mission on South Tacoma Way. Trains pass just a few yards from sleeping rooms at the mission.
During testing of the trains and crossing equipment over the past two months, the worst fears at the mission seemed to be borne out. The noise of the trains and their warning horns drowned out all conversation and rattled plates in the Mission kitchen, staff members said.
“It was almost like hearing a car accident,” said Brad Khambata, one of the mission’s lead cooks.
The racket nearly disappeared two weeks ago when construction contractors put up a 500-foot-long concrete noise wall between the tracks, Khambata said.
He was out having a smoke behind the building with two co-workers, the new concrete wall towering 16 feet over them.
“Since they put the wall in, it’s almost like the trains aren’t there anymore,” he said.
With the Lakewood extension now complete, renewed attention is being focused on two related projects.
One, well under way, is a $4 million overhead passenger walkway that will carry Lakewood Station pedestrians to the loading platform from a “kiss and ride” cul de sac west of the tracks.
The project is a cooperative venture between Sound Transit and the City of Lakewood and paid for mostly by state and federal grants. Sound Transit contributed $1 million to the project, but the city owns it.
The walkway is expected to be finished by the end of the year, said Jeff Gonzalez, an engineer in the city’s Public Works Department.
The other project, a speculative one, is the idea of continuing Sounder service 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 Joint Base 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 included in the district, which makes the extension of service to Olympia more complicated and expensive.
Thurston County is not included in the taxing district, which makes the extension of service to Olympia more complicated and expensive.
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,” Reason said. “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 Burlington Northern Santa Fe, 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.”