Planning begins on how to avoid disrupting Sounder commuter train service when new station construction starts

Almost a year remains before construction of a new Amtrak station for Tacoma begins in earnest at Freighthouse Square near the Tacoma Dome.

But the players in the big project already are planning how the work will be accomplished and how to compensate Freighthouse businesses for the construction disruption, and how to avoid disrupting the flow of commuters who ride the 20 daily Sounder commuter trains that call at the existing Sound Transit station at Freighthouse.

“There’s no doubt that we’ll be impacted,” said Brian Borgelt, Freighthouse Square’s owner.

Present plans call for a major effort to build a new station and to prepare the tracks at the station and leading to it for an influx of up to 14 daily Amtrak trains.

Those plans require the Washington State Department of Transportation to buy a part of the midsection of the 100-plus-year-old former Milwaukee Road freight warehouse, demolish that portion of that building and replace it with a contemporary station structure that echoes design elements of the older building.

At the same time, Sound Transit, which operates Sounder commuter trains to Seattle and Lakewood from the station and which owns the tracks adjacent to the building, will late this year begin building a new double track trestle approaching Freighthouse from the east. That two-thirds mile structure will replace an old single-track timber trestle with a higher capacity concrete and steel trestle paralleling East 25th Street.

The trestle structure will include an extended passenger platform to allow the longest train that will call on the Freighthouse Station, Amtrak’s Coast Starlight, to halt without the train blocking East D Street at the west end of Freighthouse.

The WSDOT project also includes building a second passenger platform to allow passengers to board a train that has stopped on a second track south of the station. That second track and platform are being built to allow two trains to be served at the station simultaneously.

In addition to the four daily trains that Amtrak intends to add to its Tacoma schedule beginning in 2017 when the station opens, Sound Transit also may add more service on the route.

David Smelser, project manager for WSDOT’s Point Defiance Bypass project, said he’s confident that the construction activity can be scheduled and staged to minimize disruption of Sounder service and Freighthouse businesses.

That staging may require the loading area for Sounder trains to be moved from the west end of the station to the east or, when the south platform is done, to the south platform from the north platform adjacent to Freighthouse.

In addition, the construction activity will have to allow for periodic freight train movements through the station area by Tacoma Rail, which serves industries in the Frederickson area from tracks near Freighthouse.

Borgelt said negotiations are ongoing to provide himself and businesses at Freighthouse some form of compensation for the construction disruptions.

One issue sure to be a factor during the 18-month construction period is parking, said Borgelt. Street parking spaces on East 25th now used by Freighthouse patrons will disappear in the construction area. And in the meantime, Pierce Transit, whose Tacoma Dome Transit Garage is across East 25th Street from Freighthouse, has recently cut back on parking spaces in that multi-story reserved for Freighthouse patrons, said Borgelt.

Eighty spaces had been designated for Freighthouse. Now that has been reduced to 40, he said.

“They said we weren’t using that many spaces,” said Borgelt. “That may be true for part of the day, but we need those spaces for peak time parking.”

Detailed plans for the station structure have reached the 30 percent stage, said Smelser. Those plans are being reviewed by all of those involved in the station project including a community advisory committee appointed by the city, Amtrak, Sound Transit, Pierce Transit, merchants and other district landowners, and the Federal Railway Administration. The FRA is providing $89 million in federal funds for the bypass project.

In addition to work near the station, the bypass project will upgrade grade crossings in Lakewood and elsewhere along the new passenger train route, rebuild or upgrade bridges, install a new signaling and safety system. Several miles of track between the existing Sound Transit station in Lakewood and the BNSF Railway mainline in Nisqually will be rebuilt to passenger train standards.

The bypass is being upgraded to shave some six minutes from existing schedules to and from Portland, which use BNSF tracks that follow the water’s edge along Commencement Bay, pass under Point Defiance in the Nelson Bennett tunnel and which trace the Sound along the Narrows and past Steilacoom and Dupont. The bypass will end passenger train traffic on that route already bottlenecked by the single-track tunnel.