New Amtrak station plan may have quieted critics

If reaction to a fresh state proposal to build a new Amtrak station in the center of Tacoma’s historic Freighthouse Square at a Thursday public hearing is an accurate indicator, critics of the state’s earlier station plan may have found a plan that makes them happy.

The Washington State Department of Transportation’s new preferred alternative for the Tacoma station calls for razing part of the 100-year-old Freighthouse Square and building an historically appropriate new station structure in the center of the 1,000-foot-long former railroad warehouse.

Tacoma Mayor Marilyn Strickland, one of 75 or so people attending the late afternoon public meeting at the University of Washington Tacoma spoke positively about the new plan.

“I think this is an opportunity to help Freighthouse Square,” said the mayor. “I see that Freighthouse can become a real transportation hub.”

The mayor’s remarks and those of a dozen others who commented or sought information about the new plan were in contrast to sharp criticism leveled at WSDOT and its earlier station plan just six months ago.

That early preliminary plan, unveiled last December, proposed replacing the west end of Freighthouse Square with a metal and glass building that would serve Amtrak’s trains taking a new route through Tacoma.

That plan was called a poor fit with the historic architecture of the former Milwaukee Road warehouse that in recent years has been converted to a shopping center and food court.

The new station is part of an $89 million plan to reroute passenger trains away from the existing BNSF Railway waterfront line along Commencement Bay, under Point Defiance and past the Tacoma Narrows. The replacement line, part of the original railroad route into Tacoma, diverges from the mainline at River Road, passes beside Freighthouse near the Tacoma Dome and then cuts through South Tacoma and Lakewood. The line eventually reunites with the mainline near Nisqually.

The existing Amtrak station on Puyallup Avenue sits beside the waterfront line, thus it can’t be used to handle passengers on the new line.

Sending trains through South Tacoma will cut six minutes off the trip between Seattle and Portland, diminish congestion on the waterfront route and allow Amtrak and Sound Transit, which already uses part of the line for Sounder commuter trains, to add more trains to their schedules.

A citizens advisory committee appointed by the City of Tacoma, earlier this year endorsed a plan that would have built a new station at Freighthouse Square’s east end.

David Smelser, WSDOT’s project manager for the Point Defiance bypass project, told attendees at the Thursday meeting that the east end proposal wasn’t financially feasible.

Building a new station at the east end of the Freighthouse would have created a multi-story structure equipped with elevators and passenger bridges to the tracks. That station would have cost the state between $800,000 and $1 million more annually to staff and maintain than a station built in the central or western part of the warehouse structure, he said.

The central location for the station would be just west of the existing Sound Transit station at Freighthouse. The structure would be a single story.

A rough sketch of the new central station location showed a “gallery” allowing passage of Freighthouse customers from the west end of the shopping structure past the station and into the food court area. December’s early plan showed no passage for Freighthouse patrons through the station to other parts of Freighthouse.

Smelser said if the central location passes further citizen reviews, the proposal will be submitted to the Federal Railroad Administration for the agency’s scrutiny. If the FRA has no objections, detailed planning for the new station could begin in August with construction beginning next year. The station would be completed by the time trains are diverted to the rehabbed line in 2017.

The Tacoma Amtrak Station Citizens Advisory Committee said it plans to review the new plan within two weeks.

The new station would incorporate a new platform on the south side of the double tracks at the station allowing two trains to load passengers simultaneously. The Freighthouse structure at East 25th and D streets is on the north side of the existing tracks.

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