New Tacoma Amtrak station design heads to Federal Railway Administration for approval

If silence is an indication of affirmation, the once-controversial design process for a new Tacoma Amtrak station passed public muster Thursday and moved forward to a second phase — finding how to fund the near-station amenities on the community’s want list.

There was no public complaint or outcry at the final public hearing on the station’s preliminary design from the four dozen people who attended the Washington State Department of Transportation meeting Thursday at the University of Washington Tacoma.

Many of those at that hearing were members of the city’s Tacoma Amtrak Station Relocation Committee. They had spent 10 months and 12 meetings with WSDOT before Thursday’s final public hearing on the station, and had already reached substantial agreement on its location and key features.

Don Erickson, chairman of that committee, said he plans for the group, perhaps reduced in size, to continue working with WSDOT and the city to help carry through with the vision the committee created for the station’s Dome District neighborhood.

The station plan presented by WSDOT would site the new station near the middle of the historic Freighthouse Square mixed use development near the Tacoma Dome at East 25th and D streets. Under WSDOT’s plan, the agency will buy and raze a 180-foot section of the 1,000-foot-long former Milwaukee Road railroad freight warehouse and build a new station within the old building’s footprints. The station will be between the western-most two-story section of the warehouse and the existing Sound Transit station just west of the building’s food court.

The new station is necessary because Amtrak passenger trains will be rerouted from the present waterfront route along Ruston Way to a rehabilitated rail route that passes near the Tacoma Dome, through South Tacoma and Lakewood before rejoining the Burlington Northern Santa Fe mainline near Nisqually. The new route is designed to cut transit time on the route between Portland and Seattle, and open up capacity for two additional trains daily on the route.

The new design features a two-story glass wall framed by wooden siding on the East 25th Street side of the building. Part of that glass wall will be constructed with movable glass garage-door-like sections that can be raised to open up the station to the street in fair weather. A public arcade will connect the existing western part of the building with the transit station. The design is radically changed from a preliminary design that WSDOT presented last December that pictured a utilitarian station building replacing the western end of Freighthouse.

David Smelser, WSDOT’s manager for the $89-million Point Defiance Bypass project, told the assembled group the state and its architects and engineers will spend the next month completing the preliminary design before submitting it to the Federal Railway Administration for its approval. If the FRA approves, final details will be completed next year on the design with construction beginning in 2016 for a 2017 opening.

The city’s station committee’s wish list for the station and the Freighthouse area has key elements that may not be addressed or funded by the station project:

•  An overhead pedestrian bridge linking the existing Pierce Transit garage, the station and the new second boarding platform on the station’s south side. The WSDOT design includes provisions for that bridge, but has no money to build it. The committee said the bridge will be necessary to allow passengers to reach a train on the southern of two tracks without walking to D Street to do so. The state said the city should investigate other grants that could help fund the bridge construction.

•  A one-way East 25th Street adjacent to the station. That street would be one-way eastbound to allow more room for wider sidewalks and plazas adjacent to the station and Freighthouse and to create drop-off areas for passengers. The city and WSDOT will jointly fund a study of that change. The city plans to begin traffic counts next week to move that planning forward.

•  Remodeling of the adjacent Freighthouse commercial area to open up the structure to the street and to allow creation of a continuation of the station arcade along the building’s north side. Brian Borgelt, Freighthouse Square’s owner, said he is investigating what it would take to modify the building. He and others in the Dome District are hoping to interest Seattle developers in creating a nexus of new activity near Freighthouse.

•  A clocktower that would connect to the pedestrian bridge along East 25th Street. Smelser said he hopes that the state can persuade the FRA to allow construction of the clocktower with federal funds. The tower would give the station larger visibility from afar.

•  Parking for Amtrak customers. The state has no plans to create long-term parking for Amtrak passengers who arrive at the station by car. Instead, said a state official, the state plans to rely on private paid lots in the area to fulfill that need. The present Amtrak station on Puyallup Avenue offers free long-term parking for about 80 vehicles. The Freighthouse area includes a large multistory transit garage, but long-term parking is not allowed. The station has light rail and bus connections to downtown and other parts of the city.

•  Large canopies covering both East 25th Street and the station’s two tracks and platforms. Those canopies were part of a conceptual plan created by Tacoma architect Jim Merritt in a study of the near-station areas. Those canopies, shown as transparent, semi-circular structures in Merritt’s drawings, would create a rain-free area on both sides of Freighthouse.