Lakewood city leaders remain critical of the proposed rerouting of Amtrak passenger trains through their community.
The City Council’s comments and pointed questions came Monday night as Washington State Department of Transportation rail officials made a formal presentation on the findings of the recently completed environmental study of the Point Defiance Bypass.
The $89 million project would redirect passenger trains from a scenic route along the south Puget Sound shoreline to an inland route that runs west of Interstate 5 through DuPont, Lakewood and South Tacoma.
Councilman Paul Bocchi noted the project would speed trains through poor neighborhoods, yet the state has refused to construct overpasses or tunnels to improve safety. Trains would travel up to 79 mph along the route.
Bocchi characterized the proposal as “economic apartheid” and said state officials would offer better mitigation if an affluent community such as Bellevue or Redmond were involved.
“This is not the same way other places would be treated,” he said. “We are looking for a deal.”
David Smelser, the rail project’s project manager, said the federal government has “very tightly nailed down” what it will fund. He said he’s had several conversations with federal officials about crossings and they’ve responded that they want to review the data.
“I don’t think it’s any refusal on our part to do that,” he said.
State officials say the project would decrease travel times through the Nisqually-Tacoma corridor by up to 10 minutes, improve safety and allow more trains to run between Portland and Seattle. The bypass is part of a larger $800 million project to add two round-trip Amtrak trips and improve service reliability between Portland and Vancouver, B.C.
The recent study concluded there would be impacts from noise, vibration and traffic delays. But it determined those impacts could be reduced, such as through safety improvements to several at-grade crossings in Lakewood and DuPont. Improvements would include stationary horns and other warning devices, gates, traffic signals and sidewalks.
Smelser said safety improvements will exceed the minimum standards.
“We’re not shirking on the safety aspect. … That’s very near and dear to my heart, that we have a safe transportation system,” Smelser said.
The deadline for public comment on the study is Friday. The city is still drafting its formal written response.
Councilman Don Anderson suggested that federal and state officials may be pushing hard to commit money to the project in case Mitt Romney is elected president and his administration moves to pull money from high-speed rail.
Smelser said the funding is in place at this point.
“I don’t see that, but with the election, Congress can do anything it wants,” he said. “Right now, the funding is secure. … I don’t see a relation there.”
While the study found no significant detriment from the proposed bypass, Councilman Jason Whalen wondered about the potential upside for the community when no stops in Lakewood are planned.
Anderson also worried about increased suicides because patients released from Western State Hospital suffering from depression would have an easier time reaching the inland route.
Federal officials will review the comments as they weigh giving the environmental study final approval by year’s end to allow the project to move toward construction.