The Point Defiance Rail Bypass is an ineffective addition to passenger transportation options. At a cost of $181 million, it poses a substantial risk to the community above and beyond the tragedy of this week’s derailment in south Pierce County.
How did this happen?
The 2009 federal stimulus package allocated billions to passenger rail infrastructure without a data-driven business case. The Washington State Department of Transportation’s Rail Division eagerly joined the stampede to grab a share of this misguided initiative.
WSDOT’s environmental assessment stated the bypass “would not change the number of people traveling (on Amtrak) in 2030” and that the diversion of travelers from Interstate 5 would be “negligible.”
About 1,500 passengers a day use Amtrak on the Seattle-to-Portland run, with more than half of the cost subsidized by the state. For each Amtrak passenger, 100 people use I-5 through Lakewood and JBLM. If no additional riders were expected, what was gained?
Very little. According to Amtrak’s published schedules, abandoning the most scenic section of the route gains seven minutes if the trains run on time. More than ample freight rail capacity exists without the change, due in large part to competition from Canadian ports and the expanded Panama Canal.
The additional risk to the public is substantial. Fifteen at-grade crossings were added through highly urbanized areas not accustomed to Amtrak traffic. Six of these are in Lakewood, the city I help lead.
For decades this was a nearly abandoned trunk line. It runs adjacent to I-5, homes and businesses, creating a substantial risk of collateral damage from any derailment.
That risk was minimal on the original route, as demonstrated by the derailments last July just north of Steilacoom and in 2011 at Chambers Bay golf course.
Core government responsibilities include public safety and infrastructure. In a rush to obtain unneeded infrastructure, safety concerns were marginalized.
The WSDOT grant application did not even mention Positive Train Control, the automated safety system that can control train movements and help prevent derailments. The City of Lakewood’s pleas for a meaningful evaluation of the project and for safety enhancements were rejected by WSDOT, leading to a 2013 lawsuit.
Federal preemption of railroad regulations caused a dismissal of the suit and gave WSDOT a green light to proceed. This is especially disconcerting when the chairman of the National Transportation Safety Board has stated “Amtrak’s safety culture is failing and is primed to fail again.”
Safety was clearly a secondary consideration.
Short-distance passenger trains were made obsolete by buses in the 1920s, and by the 1950s airplanes had rendered long-distance passenger trains a thing of the past.
We abandoned horseback riding, stage coaches, steamboats and canals when they became obsolete. What is different about passenger rail? Simply put, it is the steady flow of federal funding for this 1800s’ technology.
In 1965, trailing in the space race and feeling threatened by foreign technological advances, Congress viewed Japan’s new bullet train with envy. Ignoring that our airline system provided a superior option, another federal program was born.
This led to special interest groups: contractors, enthusiasts, freight railroads and state agencies – all of which are determined to keep the money flowing.
Lost in the equation was rail’s inconsequential benefit to passenger transportation in most of the country and its relative inefficiency. Bolt buses run between Seattle and Portland six times a day and are faster than the train. Bolt’s unsubsidized ticket price is about half of what Amtrak charges.
The facts, while interesting, appear to be irrelevant to WSDOT. The Bypass, while great for bureaucrats and contractors, is terrible for the community.
If the massive state and federal subsidies to Amtrak are to continue, WSDOT should at least return the train to the scenic route along the Sound where the risk of future fatalities is reduced.
Don Anderson has served on the Lakewood City Council since 2008 and as mayor since 2013. Reach him by email at DAnderson@cityoflakewood.us.