If he was trying to hide his frustration, Tacoma City Councilman Robert Thoms didn’t do a very convincing job.
“This is a perfect example of why it’s difficult dealing with railroads,” he said. “Even when a tragic event happens, you can’t get anything to happen quickly,”
Thoms and I were talking by phone Monday, more than five months after an Amtrak train hit and killed 28-year-old Alexandria Lewis at the McCarver Street rail crossing in Old Town.
“I don’t get it,” the councilman continued.
At the root of Thoms’ considerable consternation are efforts he’s taken the lead on to increase safety at the McCarver Street crossing — efforts he says are being slowed by Burlington Northern Santa Fe Railway.
In addition to Lewis’ death Nov. 18 at the crossing, 31-year-old Cale Tyler was killed by an Amtrak train near the same crossing only a year earlier.
These two deaths, in a year’s time, have led to increasing calls from the community for change at the crossing. Phil deMaine, an attorney at the law office where Lewis worked for eight months before her death, has helped lead the charge.
In January, he told me that improved safety measures at the rail crossing his office overlooks “need to happen now, not a year from now, not even six months from now.”
Four months later, the clock continues to tick.
“BNSF should have less red tape and should get things done more quickly on its end, but at the end of the day we do not elect BNSF officials,” deMaine said this week. “The elected Tacoma city officials are accountable to their constituents.”
BNSF should have less red tape and should get things done more quickly on its end, but at the end of the day we do not elect BNSF officials. The elected Tacoma city officials are accountable to their constituents.
Old Town attorney Phil deMaine
At the city, it’s a message that seems to have been received.
Warning signs were added at the McCarver Street crossing early this year. This week Tacoma Public Works Director Kurtis Kingsolver outlined additional upgrades the city hopes to undertake soon. They include enhanced signage, fencing and sidewalk modifications and a pedestrian gate to prevent people from trying to cross when a train is approaching.
Lewis and Tyler were killed under a similarly preventable scenario — a freight train on one set of tracks had cleared the roadway and blocked the view of a fast-moving passenger train approaching in the opposite direction.
In an acknowledgment of the need to remedy the situation, the city has earmarked $500,000 in the 2017-2018 biennial budget for evaluating and improving rail crossings across the city, including the McCarver Street crossing and the rail crossing on Sixth Avenue near Titlow.
According to Thoms, all that’s keeping the city from undertaking this safety work is the review and approval process BNSF — which owns the property — must undertake before giving the city the green light.
“I don’t know why it’s taking them so long,” he told me this week.
But while Thoms is letting his displeasure be known, Kingsolver cast the situation in a more diplomatic light, telling me, “There’s been a lot of contact with BNSF. … They’ve really been working well with us.”
The Public Works director described the process as one that’s proceeding as expected and as fast as possible. He noted that much of the work will be done on BNSF property, and some will require the railroad to complete installation and upkeep work. That means the company must thoroughly review everything to make sure safety concerns are met and the city’s ducks are in a row.
“They’ve been really good to work with,” Kingsolver said, noting that BNSF, in addition to reviewing the city’s proposed work as quickly as possible, is helping Tacoma write a grant proposal to help offset the cost of a pedestrian gate.
“They’ve been extremely responsive,” he said. “Unfortunately, it takes time to go through some of this stuff.”
BNSF spokesman Gus Melonas confirmed the railroad is working with the city to improve pedestrian safety, while declining to go into specifics.
“Safety is our major priority, and BNSF is working with the city on this important safety issue and the necessary processes involved,” he said. “We have safety requirements that must be met and are waiting for the city to meet these.”
Asked to expand on what safety requirements Tacoma needs to meet before BNSF will give its blessing to the work, Melonas said he couldn’t comment on the issue “until all is finalized.”
Perhaps fueling his public frustration, in January, Thoms made public calls for safety upgrades at the McCarver Street crossing within 90 days. With that deadline having passed, he’s clearly getting antsy and decided to ramp up the public pressure.
I specifically said we could get it done in a relatively short period of time, and we were able to do it on our side. If it was our land, we would have already done it. We were at five months (since Lewis’ death) in April. I’m going to be really (angry) if it takes six months to get a perfunctory OK.
Tacoma City Councilman Robert Thoms
“I specifically said we could get it done in a relatively short period of time, and we were able to do it on our side,” Thoms told me. “If it was our land, we would have already done it.”
“We were at five months (since Lewis’ death) in April,” he continued. “I’m going to be really (angry) if it takes six months to get a perfunctory OK.”
At the risk of being the bearer of bad news, it seems all but certain that Thoms’ wait will hit the six-month mark, and likely exceed it.
Kingsolver said he hopes to have the fence work completed at the McCarver Street crossing by July Fourth, in time for heavy summer crowds and the annual Freedom Festival. The more extensive — and BNSF-involved — work, like the pedestrian gate, might take longer, he acknowledged.
Kingsolver expects to present an update to the City Council and the community in the coming weeks.
For his part, deMaine — like Thoms — remains understandably frustrated by the slow pace of change.
Even change that may well prevent future tragedy.
“I would have expected more to be done by now,” deMaine said bluntly.