Officials consider using Sounder trains to shuttle fans to U.S. Open

Sound Transit is studying whether its Sounder commuter trains could deliver spectators to the doorstep of the Chambers Bay Golf Course during the 2015 U.S. Open.

The concept calls for Sounder trains to connect to the Burlington Northern Santa Fe mainline around Point Defiance to reach the waterfront golf course in University Place. The trains would stop on storage tracks to load and unload passengers on a temporary wooden platform within walking distance of the major tournament.

Officials involved in the U.S. Open’s planning say they have been discussing the idea but caution that it is preliminary.

Representatives of Sound Transit, Pierce County, the United States Golf Association and BNSF are scheduled to meet Tuesday to further discuss the idea.

Sound Transit Executive Director Joni Earl said questions remain, including how many spectators would use the service, how many trains would be needed, how much it would cost and who would pay the bills.

But officials also see major potential in using rail to safely and efficiently move some of the 235,000 people expected to attend one of the biggest sporting events in the Pacific Northwest’s history.

“It’s definitely worth exploring,” Earl said. “It’s definitely something we are exploring.”

The USGA, which is leasing the golf course from Pierce County for $2 million to hold the tournament, relied on rail service during the last two U.S. Opens, held outside San Francisco and Philadelphia. But rail service to Chambers Bay would be unique because it currently isn’t offered there.

Essential for the idea to move forward, officials say, is interest among spectators in using the service and BNSF’s approval to use its track and right of way. USGA championship director Danny Sink said rail service would be helpful in moving spectators coming from the Seattle area.

“If it’s only to bring 100 to 300 people to the championship, it’s not really viable,” he said.

The USGA bused spectators to the host golf courses of prior U.S. Opens to control crowds and reduce traffic around the golf course. Sink has made initial contacts with the Puyallup Fairgrounds, Joint Base Lewis-McChord, Cheney Stadium and local school districts as he scouts out large parking areas to run those buses to and from.

Sink said the USGA would love to have the opportunity to use as many forms of mass transit as possible for the event.

“It’s certainly something we’re supportive of, if all the parties can get it worked out,” he said.

Earl said she directed her staff to conduct a “fatal flaw” analysis of the idea before she decided to travel to Pennsylvania for this month’s U.S. Open to do further research. Earl and Pierce County Executive Pat McCarthy met with representatives of Southeastern Pennsylvania Transportation Authority to discuss its service to the U.S. Open. SEPTA stopped commuter trains within walking distance of the golf course and at another location where spectators boarded a shuttle bus to reach the event.

Staffers reported back that they found challenges to bringing train service to Chambers Bay but no insurmountable obstacles. Sound Transit has been in contact with BNSF representatives about the idea. “They did not say, ‘absolutely not,’ ” Earl said.

BNSF spokesman Gus Melonas was noncommittal when The News Tribune asked about the idea Friday.

“Once Sound Transit provides us a service plan, we will study the feasibility,” he said.

Meanwhile, the county is moving ahead with a project that would play a role in bringing Sound Transit trains to the U.S. Open. It would relocate the existing storage tracks between the BNSF mainline and Chambers Creek Properties from the north end of the property to the south end, closer to the wastewater treatment plant.

The project removes “very unappealing views from the golf course, trail and beach,” said Brian Ziegler, Pierce County’s public works and utilities director, and BNSF workers would no longer have to drive through the property to reach the storage tracks.

The proposed location of the relocated storage tracks is near the likely site where shuttle buses would drop off spectators during the U.S. Open, Ziegler said.

The estimated project cost is about $1.5 million and would be paid from the county sewer fund. Ziegler said the final design of the project is underway, and a private contractor and BNSF would finish the project by this winter. The design may need to be tweaked if the Sounder project were to move forward, but planners say they would have time to make those changes.

Sink and Earl both said that if the idea to run trains to the golf course doesn’t pan out, an alternative would be to run Sounder trains to different locations, including the Lakewood Station, and have spectators board shuttle buses to get to the event.

Christian Hill: 253-274-7390


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