Work to start in summer on rail line near Mounts Road

Point Defiance bypass will take several years, move train traffic off waterfront, through cities

Staff writerMay 14, 2014 

Work is expected to begin at the end of the summer on the railroad line near Mounts Road between Nisqually and DuPont to prepare for the larger Point Defiance bypass project.

But it will be at least another year before people see changes to the tracks that pass through three Pierce County cities — changes that eventually will reroute passenger trains through DuPont, Lakewood and Tacoma.

The state Department of Transportation is nearing the end of its design period for the southern portion of the project that proposes to move Amtrak routes off the long-used BNSF Railway waterfront route. BNSF will do the work on its tracks near Mounts Road to prepare for the split from its main line to the track that borders Interstate 5.

“We’re basically finishing up, getting the details in place to get final design approval,” said David Smelser, WSDOT’s high-speed rail program manager. “Nothing is in construction yet, but the BNSF piece will go to construction this summer.”

Meanwhile, the Sound Transit board in April authorized its CEO to enter into agreements with WSDOT and Amtrak. The passenger route from Nisqually north to the Puyallup River will use Sound Transit commuter rail tracks.

Once the Federal Rail Administration signs off on the state’s design, construction can begin, Smelser said. People who live and work near the tracks that run through DuPont and Lakewood won’t see any upgrades until 2015, he said.

“We are upgrading every intersection along that line and making significant safety improvements there,” Smelser said.

Lakewood officials previously questioned whether the state had adequate safety measures in place to protect its neighborhoods. It filed a lawsuit against the state in 2013 citing its concerns.

In March, Pierce County Superior Court Judge Katherine M. Stolz ruled against the city and dismissed the case. The city does not plan to pursue additional litigation, Lakewood City Manager John Caulfield said.

Lakewood argued the state ignored the city’s comprehensive plan and its plan for the Tillicum neighborhood when reviewing the environmental impacts of the rail project.

Despite the outcome, the legal action accomplished what the city wanted, Caulfield said.

“The purpose of filing the lawsuit was to get their attention,” he said. “We knew it was a high bar to set.”

The state has made changes to intersection upgrades and is working with the city, Smelser said. It will improve rail crossings with better signal systems including additional lights, cross bars, gates and horns. Some intersections will have raised medians to discourage people from driving around the gates. Pedestrian gates will also be added in some areas, along with pavement markings and sidewalks, Smelser said.

Lakewood will continue to pursue state and federal money to address its safety concerns and has asked congressional leaders to request a study to determine if an Amtrak stop could be added in Lakewood, Caulfield said. Current plans don’t call for the train to stop in the city.

Federal regulators could approve the state’s designs on the 14.5 miles of track and its signal improvements by this fall, Smelser said. The state will continue to work on other elements of the project, including agreements with Sound Transit and the conversion of Tacoma’s Freighthouse Square building to add an Amtrak stop.

All work on the rail upgrade project must be done by 2017.

This new route is projected to save roughly 10 minutes of travel time on Amtrak’s Seattle-Portland trip and reduce congestion on the BNSF’s waterfront line. It will also allow for the capacity of two more round trips between the cities.

Brynn Grimley: 253-597-8467
Brynn.grimley@thenewstribune.com

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