Exactly two months after 28-year-old Alexandria Lewis was struck and killed by a train at the McCarver Street rail crossing in Old Town, Phil deMaine, an attorney at the law office where Lewis worked for eight months before her death, called a meeting of concerned citizens to order Wednesday night.
With about 40 people gathered inside the Old Town Music Society building, deMaine quickly got to business. The rail crossing where Lewis lost her life, and 31-year-old Cale Tyler was killed by an Amtrak train almost exactly a year earlier, needs safety upgrades, he implored.
Heads nodded in agreement. Tears flowed in remembrance of lives lost.
Signs warning pedestrians of the danger at the crossing — where pedestrians must traverse two dangerous sets of tracks to make it to and from the Ruston Way waterfront — are an absolute necessity that should already be in place, he said.
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Pedestrian crossing arms that would prevent those on the sidewalk from making their way across before trains coming from either direction have cleared are a bare minimum upgrade to prevent future tragedies, he said.
And, someday, a pedestrian bridge — one that would allow people to get from Old Town to the waterfront without getting close to oncoming trains at all — is the ultimate goal, he declared.
“The question is when,” deMaine told me later of the safety upgrades he and the community members he’s helped rally to the cause are pressuring the city to install.
“Because they need to happen now, not a year from now, not even six months from now,” he continued.
Every day that goes by is an increased risk for another death.
Phil deMaine, Old Town attorney
“Every day that goes by is an increased risk for another death.”
He’s right. So are the more than 1,000 people, and counting, who have signed an online petition to the same effect.
And here’s the crystal-clear takeaway: Something so obvious should not require this much effort.
Still, faced with the snail’s pace of bureaucracy and the posturing and finger-pointing between the city and Burlington Northern Santa Fe Railway over who should pay for safety upgrades, this is the only outlet deMaine, and people like Kirstin Tyler, whose brother-in-law Cale was killed by a train while jogging with his wife and members of a Tacoma runners group on Nov. 19, 2015, appear to have.
Since Lewis, a veteran who left behind a husband who also served in the U.S. military and two small boys, lost her life in November, deMaine and the Tyler family have formed a bond and a partnership designed to bring about change at the McCarver Street crossing. Kirstin Tyler, an attorney living in Las Vegas, plans to travel to Tacoma early next month to help lobby the North End Neighborhood Council and the City Council to improve safety at the crossing. A Facebook page has been launched to help gather community support.
“The fact of the matter is, for whatever reason, (Cale Tyler’s death) didn’t get a lot of attention, because it was the first accident,” Kristin Tyler told me by phone Friday, admitting that her family was still grieving, 14 months after the tragedy, and still crying “every day.”
“Unfortunately, it took the death of a young mother to really get the attention of the community in Tacoma,” she continued. “Our team that we have together now is making huge momentum on the issue.”
Unfortunately, it took the death of a young mother to really get the attention of the community in Tacoma. … Our team that we have together now is making huge momentum on the issue.
Signs of this momentum are beginning to appear not just in the grass-roots support the McCarver Street crossing safety push is generating, but in the words and promises of members of the City Council.
A meeting of the Government Performance and Finance Committee kept Councilman Robert Thoms, who represents Old Town as part of District 2, from attending Wednesday night’s meeting, but deMaine relayed conversations he’s had with Thoms in which the councilman promised action within 90 days.
Reached by phone Friday, Thoms, who has made pedestrian safety one of his hallmark issues, reiterated the pledge. He told me that, while he’s also frustrated with the slowness of the process, he’s confident warning signs can be in place within 60 to 90 days. He also thinks it’s realistic to expect a solid plan for how something like pedestrian safety arms will be acquired and installed in that time frame — if not the beginning of the actual work of putting them in.
“I feel confident that this has support from the mayor and my colleagues,” he said.
Though Thoms acknowledged that the conversation of who will pay for safety upgrades at McCarver crossing is far from settled, he was adamant that cost should not prevent progress and said he was confident that “a win-win for those other partners” — specifically BNSF and the state Department of Transportation — can be achieved.
Until then, expect the work of deMaine and the Tyler family to continue.
“We encourage everyone to raise their voice about it,” deMaine said.
“(The crossing has) destroyed two families,” he told me. “You cannot wait until a third family is destroyed before doing something.”
Note to the city of Tacoma: No, you really can’t.