A $3 million offer from Lewis County for a little-used piece of a City of Tacoma-owned railroad could help the city extinguish a $6.25 million debt.
Lewis County wants to buy some 20 miles of rail line extending northward from Chehalis to near Maytown. That line is owned by the City of Tacoma and managed by the city’s Tacoma Rail short line railroad.
The Lewis County group would use the rail line for industrial and tourism development and for rail car storage. One of the proposed uses for the line would be as an excursion and dinner train route between Chehalis and the Great Wolf Lodge at Grand Mound north of Centralia. The Tacoma Rail track passes between I-5 and the lodge.
Tacoma Rail Superintendent Dale King said this week that attorneys are working out the final details of the deal.
The line was originally part of the Milwaukee Road railroad. Weyerhaeuser bought the line from Milwaukee Road when it shut down its western lines in the late ’70s. Weyerhaeuser sold the line to Tacoma decades later.
The route is part of the Tacoma Rail’s Mountain Division which connects Tacoma to Chehalis and Morton. The Mountain Division extends from Tacoma to Frederickson where it divides into two branches. One extends to Morton. The other ends in Chehalis.
Most of Tacoma Rail’s Mountain Division business serves industries in Frederickson. The Chehalis line has been used mostly for surplus rail car storage in recent years. With the rail business declining when the recession hit six years ago, railroads began sidelining rail cars not needed to handle traffic. They needed unused rail line for that storage.
Tacoma leased miles of its Mountain Division for that purpose. Last year, Tacoma Rail and the city leased the ends of its Mountain Division to two different entities for their use. The Chehalis-to-Maytown section was rented to the Western Washington Railroad which continued to use that section for rail car storage. The section from Eatonville to Morton is leased to the Western Forest Industries Museum which operates the Mount Rainier Scenic Railroad on a portion of that line.
Leasing those lines generated income for Tacoma Rail and the city and eliminated costs for maintenance of those routes.
Selling the Chehalis-to-Maytown section to Lewis County would help the city wipe out part of a $6.25 million internal loan it had made to itself to subsidize the operation and maintenance of the Mountain Division.
King said he’s unsure whether Tacoma Rail will retain the rights to run its trains on the section being offered for sale. Keeping those rights might reduce the price the city obtains for the rail line. Tacoma Rail, he said, doesn’t now have a need to operate on that line.
The sale of the Lewis County section of the city-owned rail system isn’t the only pending deal involving city tracks.
Tacoma Rail continues to negotiate with Sound Transit to sell or lease it 1.3 miles of city-owned tracks from the BNSF mainline tracks on the south side of the Puyallup River to the Freighthouse Square where Sound Transit has its Tacoma Station.
Those tracks are used by Sounder commuter trains serving Tacoma and Lakewood. That section of railroad will also ultimately become home to Amtrak trains serving Tacoma.
Amtrak plans to rehabilitate former Tacoma Rail lines from Lakewood to near Nisqually as a new route for its north-south trains. The new route would bypass the single-track Nelson Bennett Tunnel under Point Defiance. That tunnel has become a bottleneck for the increasing volume of freight and passenger trains serving the region.