High operating costs ruling out new Tacoma Amtrak station at Freighthouse Square’s east end

The Washington State Department of Transportation is recommending a new Amtrak station for Tacoma be built in the central section of historic Freighthouse Square.

That recommendation is the result of several months of study of three alternatives, the east and west ends of Freighthouse and the 1,000-foot-long historic railroad warehouse’s central section.

David Smelser, project manager for $89 million Point Defiance Bypass Project, said detailed evaluations of the three possible sites during recent weeks have all but ruled out a site at the east end of Freighthouse. That site was recommended by a citizens advisory panel appointed by the City of Tacoma.

The proposed station location at Freighthouse will be the subject of a public meeting Thursday (June 26) from 4 p.m. to 6 p.m. at the University of Washington Tacoma’s Dougan Building, 1721 Jefferson Ave., room 280.

Freighthouse Square is a 100-year-old former Milwaukee Road rail warehouse at East 25th and D streets near the Tacoma Dome. The former warehouse has been converted to a shopping and restaurant site. It also houses a Sounder rail commuter station.

That east end site would cost the state twice as much to operate – an additional $800,000 to $1 million more annually – than the central or west end Freighthouse sites, he said. The east end site, where the tracks are elevated some three stories above East 25th Street, would have required a multi-story station equipped with elevators for passengers and baggage and would have required more personnel to operate, Smelser said. The central and west end sites are at near grade level with the tracks.

Creating a new station in the central section of the building would also minimize conflicts between the station project and the construction of a new elevated trestle at the east end of the building to replace a decades-old wooden structure.

Operating costs for a station in the west end of Freighthouse and in the building’s central section would be roughly the same for either site. said Smelser, but the public, particularly Dome area merchants and civic leaders, have shown a strong aversion to building the station in the structure’s west end.

When the department unveiled a preliminary sketch of a new station that could replace the highly visible west end of the building last December, the public reaction from both citizens and political leaders was critical. The metal station building in the conceptual design was a poor fit with the 100-year-old architecture of the Freighthouse, said critics.

Under the WSDOT proposal, the new station would be built just west of the existing Sound Transit station. The existing Freighthouse structure in that area would have to be razed and replaced with the new station on the same footprint as the warehouse. The existing building’s foundations are too weak, its wiring too antiquated and its layout too segmented to accommodate a new station, the state said.

The state, bolstered by federal grants, will build a new station because passenger trains will be rerouted from the present tracks along Puget Sound and under Point Defiance to a rebuilt and enhanced track running from the BNSF mainline near River Road through South Tacoma and Lakewood to Nisqually where it will rejoin the main route.

The rerouting project will help relieve congestion on the Point Defiance route and cut travel times between Seattle and Portland by six minutes. The new route will allow Amtrak and the state to add two daily roundtrips aboard Amtrak Cascades trains between the two cities.

The more detailed recent studies found that in order to give Amtrak and Sound Transit, which operates Sounder commuter trains on the route between Tacoma and Lakewood, more flexible scheduling options a new platform needs to be built adjacent to the south track at Freighthouse. When a new Positive Train Control safety and signaling system is installed on the route, said Smelser, Sounder trains that terminate their journeys in Tacoma will have to pause for a longer period at the Freighthouse Station than they do now to allow the system to recycle for the journey back to Seattle. With the existing single passenger platform in place, that could delay the use of the station by Amtrak trains, said Smelser.

With a second platform built on the south side of the station, an Amtrak train could load and unload while the Sounder train was pausing, he said. The station now has parallel tracks but no platform to serve the second train.

If the central location for the new station passes informal citizen review, the plan will be submitted to the Federal Railway Administration for review. If FRA approves, detailed planning could begin in August with construction beginning in late 2015.

Under the present schedule, the bypass route is scheduled to be activated in the spring of 2017. The station could be finished several months before track improvements on the route are in place, said Smelser.