Forget views, Amtrak route buys time

Tacoma’s new Amtrak station at Freighthouse Square is scheduled to open Monday, December 18th, 2017.
Tacoma’s new Amtrak station at Freighthouse Square is scheduled to open Monday, December 18th, 2017. jbessex@gateline.com

Good news, Puget Sound train travelers, your ride between Portland and Seattle just got faster.

The long-awaited Point Defiance Bypass project, beginning Dec. 18, reroutes Amtrak passenger trains away from the shoreline and into the urban heart of Lakewood and South Tacoma.

Frequent commuters will note the upgrade immediately; they’ll no longer get stuck outside a single-track tunnel waiting for freight trains to make their way to and from the Port of Tacoma.

The new inland route will take passengers from Tacoma Dome station through South Tacoma, Lakewood and DuPont. It won’t be nearly as scenic (we’re gonna miss those window views between the Narrows Bridge and Steilacoom) but it will relieve rail congestion, enable the addition of two daily round trips, and make arrival and departure times more reliable.

The downside of the bypass is that residents living and working in busy south Pierce County neighborhoods will have to get used to fast-moving trains — up to 79 mph — running both directions.

Sending high-speed trains down tracks at urban intersections will not only shut down surface roads several times a day, it could lead to deadly accidents. This year alone, more than 30 people have been killed by trains in Washington; over half of those were pedestrians.

We’re happy to see safety upgrades were included in the $181.2 million project, but nothing can substitute for common sense. Drivers and pedestrians must still follow safety guidelines while near tracks and obey all signals.

On the plus side, the Point Defiance Bypass Project made a new Amtrak station in Tacoma a necessity, and, boy, it was time.

The old station on Puyallup Avenue had the appeal of a Stasi waiting room in 1957 East Germany. Instead of saying, “Welcome to Tacoma,” the dismal interior said: “Get back on the train and never look back.”

The new station located near the Tacoma Dome at Freighthouse Square is a huge aesthetic improvement. It sends a clear message that Tacoma means business. A Citizens Advisory Committee made up of architects, Historic Tacoma members and the Puyallup Tribe contributed to the design, and the collaboration paid off.

Tacoma’s new transportation hub also will feature Sound Transit trains, a Pierce Transit bus station, a Link light-rail, and some day, a light-rail extension to Seattle and beyond — all within a stone’s throw of one another.

Meanwhile, Gov. Jay Inslee recently paid a visit to lawmakers in British Columbia and brought up the idea of a high-speed train connecting Vancouver and Seattle. Inslee told the Canadians he was downright “bullish” over the idea of moving passengers between the two cities in less than an hour.

Unfortunately, creating the high-speed cross-border train corridor would cost somewhere between $24-$42 billion, according to WSDOT. Notes from the agency also reveal that demand for such a project “is not sufficient at this time.”

Sound Transit’s recent public-relations issues haven’t exactly engendered public will for another colossal transportation package. But maybe the predicted success of the Point Defiance Bypass will do its part to help re-establish the value of rail travel.

Indeed, Tacoma’s on a roll. So sayeth a sign that hangs in front of Freighthouse Square.