Parking could be an issue when Amtrak moves to Tacoma’s Freighthouse Square

When Amtrak’s new Tacoma station opens at Freighthouse Square in 2017, it will be carefully designed for passenger comfort and convenience. Unless you bring your car.

Unlike the current Puyallup Avenue Amtrak station, the new station will have no designated lot or garage for long-term parking of Amtrak travelers’ vehicles. One of the existing station’s better assets is an 80-car lot that’s free for Amtrak customers and their friends and relatives who are picking them up at the station.

Gayla Reese Walsh, a spokeswoman for the Washington Department of Transportation, which is building the new station as part of its $89 million Point Defiance Bypass project, confirmed Thursday that the station planning includes no publicly funded provision for passenger vehicle parking. A study showed that ample private parking is available within the new station area, she said.

A glance at the business district map shows that the area is home to thousands of parking slots, but few of them are now available for long-term parking, and none of them is free for that purpose.

The Freighthouse station is becoming the new station site because Amtrak trains are being rerouted through South Tacoma and Lakewood in 2017 from their waterfront route along Commencement Bay and Puget Sound. The new route will reduce congestion on the waterfront line and cut eight minutes from the Seattle-Portland trains schedule.

The new station will be a short stroll from the food court and the Sound Transit station at Freighthouse, and walking distance from the LeMay auto museum, the Tacoma Dome and a major Tacoma hotel, the Best Western Plus Tacoma Dome.

The station site near East 25th and D streets in the Dome Business District is the nexus of public transportation in Tacoma. Sound Transit’s Link light rail connection to downtown will pass by the station’s north side. The two-track station will host Sounder commuter trains to South King County, Seattle and Lakewood, as well as Amtrak Cascade regional trains to Vancouver, B.C., Seattle, Portland and Eugene, Oregon, and Amtrak’s long distance Coast Starlight to Los Angeles, the San Francisco Bay area and intermediate points.

Across East 25th Street, Pierce Transit, Intercity Transit and Sound Transit operate hubs for their bus lines for Seattle, Pierce County and Olympia. And commercial bus lines connect Tacoma’s nearby bus station with other cities in the region and the nation.

The new station will be built across East 25th Street from Pierce Transit’s 2,300-plus vehicle, multistory garage. And plans for the new station include a provision for an overhead bridge that will connect that garage with the station and the rail platforms on the station’s south side. The state won’t fund that bridge with its federal bypass money, but the WSDOT has said it will support the efforts of the city and the business district to find other funds to build it.

But Pierce Transit spokeswoman Carol Mitchell says the transit agency has no plans to make provisions for long-term parking in that free garage. There’s a 24-hour limit on garage parking.

“We’re 100 percent full as it is,” she said. The majority of garage users are Sound Transit patrons who either commute to Seattle on Sounder trains or to downtown on Sound Transit’s no-charge light rail system.

A parking lot just west of Freighthouse is owned by Brian Borgelt, Freighthouse’s owner. That lot is designated for Freighthouse patrons with a two-hour limit. A lot a block farther west is a mix of slots reserved for nearby businesses and itinerant users. It pegs the price of overnight parking at $20.

Another lot two blocks downhill from the station site in front of a former mattress factory also charges a significant fee for overnight parking. Hundreds of slots are available in lots near the Tacoma Dome, but those are typically reserved for event parking, not long-term vehicle parking.

Tacoma Business District officials say they’re concerned about the parking situation and how to handle the influx of new traffic without turning what they hope will become a densely built transportation hub and residential area into a vast lifeless auto parking site.

For Borgelt, the parking situation presents special challenges. Under the preliminary design for the new station, many angle parking slots next to Freighthouse will be eliminated to make room for curbside zones for taxis, disabled patrons and passenger dropoffs.

The Freighthouse owner is among a group of Dome District business people who want Pierce Transit to begin charging for parking in the transit garage.

Because that garage is free, many of its users aren’t Sounder commuter passengers, but downtown workers and University of Washington Tacoma students who occupy garage parking stalls and take the free light rail connection to the UWT or downtown.

Jori Adkins, a Dome District property owner, said new urban planning principles call for a de-emphasis on autos and a greater focus of walking and public transit.

The district is hoping the transit-oriented planning will result in new residential and mixed-use projects adjacent to the new station on lots now occupied by parking lots, she said.

“Cars don’t patronize our restaurants, don’t buy things in our retail stores. People do,” she said.

Borgelt said he expects some of the existing lots will modify their operations to accommodate long-term parking, setting aside part of their lots for overnight parking.

The Freighthouse owner and other district officials just last week met with the city’s parking manager to begin planning how to accommodate the new station’s patrons.

Eric Huseby, the city’s parking service manager, said he can make minor adjustments to existing street parking arrangements, but a larger look at the parking situation in the district will require the property owners and users to decide what the focus of parking plan should be. Should parking serve primarily short-term customers, employees, Dome patrons or others?

“The situation in the Dome District is more complex,” said Huseby. A flexible parking plan could serve the district’s primary needs but make accommodations for other parking users, he said.

Will the disappearance of convenient, free long-term parking diminish the popularity of Amtrak service from Tacoma? Some 91,000 riders got off or on the regional Amtrak Cascades trains last year in Tacoma.

A $20 or greater overnight parking charge could change the calculations of the cost of driving to Portland versus going by train for a long weekend.

The lack of free parking hasn’t affected business at Seattle’s King Street Station, said Amtrak officials, where more than four times the number of passengers used Amtrak trains last year than in Tacoma. Paid parking is available there in a nearby King County garage.