State transportation officials say they’re making a hurried effort to find other options for Tacoma’s new Amtrak passenger rail station after negotiations to buy a portion of Freighthouse Square for that structure reached an impasse.
The state had selected the Freighthouse Square site near the Tacoma Dome after nearly three years of politically difficult and delicate community outreach efforts. Now it appears that plan made with community agreement may never be carried out.
For now, the state is considering options such as an unmanned station at Freighthouse or using the existing station and busing passengers to Freighthouse.
In a letter to members of the city’s Amtrak station community advisory committee, the Washington Department of Transportation said that unless the matter is quickly resolved, the whole station project is in jeopardy.
“Negotiations to purchase the identified portion of the building are at an impasse and any further delays that impact the construction process will make it impossible for WSDOT to meet deadlines for building the new station,” Janet Matkin, WSDOT’s rail division communications manager, wrote to advisory committee members.
A new station is necessary because the department beginning in mid-2017 will reroute Amtrak passenger trains from their present waterfront route to a route through South Tacoma, Lakewood and DuPont. The new route will relieve congestion on the tracks along Puget Sound and cut several minutes off Amtrak’s Seattle-Portland schedule.
“Funding for the new station is through a federal grant and the Federal Railroad Administration determined that under this grant, negotiations to acquire the building could not begin until October 2015. The grant also stipulates that all construction for the station must be completed by summer 2017. No alternative funds have been identified to extend the construction beyond this deadline,” the department wrote.
“Following an extensive four-month negotiation process, WSDOT and the property owner have failed to reach agreement on the cost of acquiring a portion of the existing Freighthouse Square building and other related property easements. WSDOT now is pursuing legal action to acquire the property through a condemnation process. However, court decisions may not come soon enough, thus putting the entire project in jeopardy,” Matkin said.
Brian Borgelt, Freighthouse Square owner, said the price the state was willing to pay for a middle portion of the 1,000-foot-long former Milwaukee Road warehouse was not enough to compensate him and the merchants in Freighthouse Square for the disruptions during the construction process and to make the building viable as a retail and restaurant destination after the station opened. Financial terms were not disclosed.
The state planned to demolish the section of the historic warehouse it planned to buy and construct a new station in its place. Requests for bids were due to be issued this month with construction starting this spring to meet the deadline for opening the new route.
The plans for the station became a sensitive topic after the state revealed preliminary concepts for the new station more than two years ago. Those draft plans were criticized as unattractive and destructive to the 100-plus-year-old building’s character.
The state held multiple public hearings and meetings with the advisory committee appointed by the City of Tacoma to reach a compromise agreement on the design and location of the station.
Borgelt said he had made it known well before the negotiations started that he expected the state to provide mitigation expenses in addition to building-purchase money, but the state declined to ante up.
“We supported the idea of creating a multi-modal transportation hub at Freighthouse, but we didn’t expect that the project wouldn’t compensate us and make us whole for business disruptions,” he said.
The state told committee members: “WSDOT is investigating other options to serve our passengers at this time. The alternatives are far from ideal, since WSDOT and the community have invested three years in public meetings and design for this station at Freighthouse Square. Together we have designed an impressive gateway to Tacoma for more than 100,000 passengers who will use the station when two additional daily round trips are added between Seattle and Portland in 2017.”
John Gillie: 253-597-8663