Deal to use Sounder trains for U.S. Open said to be “really close”

A deal to use Sounder commuter trains to deliver thousands of spectators to next year’s U.S. Open at Chambers Bay Golf Course in University Place is close to being final, officials say.

From 7,000 to 10,000 passengers per day could be transported by rail to the golf championship next June if the agreement goes through, said Brian Ziegler, director of public works and utilities for Pierce County.

“I think we’re really close,” said Ziegler, who has attended meetings on the proposal.

Some trains would travel directly from King Street Station in Seattle to University Place. Others would make current stops from Seattle along the way including Auburn, Sumner, Puyallup and Tacoma, Ziegler said. From Tacoma, the trains would travel the Burlington Northern Santa Fe main line around Point Defiance to reach the waterfront golf course.

The trains would let spectators off about 200 feet from the planned main entrance to the U.S. Open, Ziegler said. The dropoff would be near the Bridge to the Beach.

“It’s really a prime location to put a platform and bring passengers in,” Ziegler said.

The train service could be a key transportation component for the largest sporting event ever held in Pierce County, if not the state. Weeklong attendance at the U.S. Open is expected to reach 235,000 — including up to 30,000 spectators per day plus volunteers and media. Nearly three-fourths of the tournament’s tickets have been sold.

The train deal involves three parties: Burlington Northern Santa Fe, Sound Transit and the United States Golf Association. Pierce County has been “facilitating all the conversations and attending all the meetings,” Ziegler said.

The USGA and Sound Transit both said recently they are optimistic about an arrangement being reached.

Sound Transit spokeswoman Kimberly Reason said her agency hopes to finalize negotiations with the USGA in late August.

A Burlington Northern Santa Fe spokesman was less specific.

“We are open to working with U.S. Open representatives and Sound Transit and will be discussing details,” said spokesman Gus Melonas.

Asked when the railroad company would comment further, Melonas said to check back in a few weeks “and we’ll see if there’s anything to discuss.”

But in an April letter to the county, a BNSF official supported the county’s request for an access road and passenger platform on railroad property for the U.S. Open.

“BNSF understands Pierce County’s and the USGA’s need for the property and intends to work with you to meet such needs on a timeline of the County’s choosing,” wrote DJ Mitchell, assistant vice president of passenger operations for BNSF.

Danny Sink, on-site championship director, said the USGA has been working with BNSF and Sound Transit for more than a year for direct service from King Street Station and has commitments from both agencies.

“The reason we’re not ready for an announcement yet is we want to make sure it works,” said Sink, noting problems with commuter rail service to the Super Bowl in New Jersey in February.

“We’re crossing the T’s, we’re dotting the I’s,” Sink said at a news conference June 27. “It’s just up to us now to kind of flesh out the details.”

Reason said Sound Transit would have its own agreement with the USGA for use of Sounder trains. BNSF would likely have a separate agreement for use of its freight tracks, which Sounder trains would use from Tacoma to University Place.

The USGA would be responsible for costs of the service, including building a steel platform with a plywood deck near the golf course for passengers, Ziegler said. BNSF would provide the train crews and fuel, as it does for current Sounder service.

The price spectators would pay to ride also needs to be resolved.

“They can’t charge too much for the train or that will just defeat the purpose,” Ziegler said.

He said an agreement should be finalized later this month when the cost of service is more clear and the USGA decides the level of rail service it wants.

The vast majority of U.S. Open spectators are still expected to drive to the event. They will use more than 200 USGA shuttles from about 20 parking locations, including at least two large lots.

One site for 4,000 to 5,000 vehicles will be 340-acre Fort Steilacoom Park in Lakewood. The USGA will pay the City of Lakewood $40,000 to use the park, according to an agreement the Lakewood City Council approved in March.

Another major parking site will be at the Washington State Fairgrounds in Puyallup.

Debbie Baker, the fair’s facility booking manager, said the fair has a signed agreement with the USGA to use up to 7,000 spaces a day in the blue, gold and other lots.

“Their needs ramp up as the week goes on,” Baker said. She referred questions to Eric Steimer, the championship’s assistant manager.

Steimer wouldn’t comment on any arrangements with the fairgrounds. The USGA plans to release its transportation plan in April or May.

“It’s not generally something we like to put out to the public until we have that entire plan in place,” Steimer said.