This editorial will appear in Wednesday’s print edition.
Lakewood officials are absolutely right to challenge the state’s proposed Point Defiance bypass project that would send Amtrak passenger trains hurtling through the city at 79 mph. They would be seriously remiss if they didn’t.
At first glance, at least, Lakewood stands to shoulder all the negatives of the project – noise, traffic disruptions, safety threats – while reaping few if any discernible benefits. The Amtrak trains are not currently scheduled to stop in Lakewood, so residents who want to ride to Portland and points south would actually have to go north to Tacoma to board and backtrack through Lakewood on their trip.
It’s easy to see the appeal of the bypass for the state, Amtrak and the Port of Tacoma. It would separate passenger and freight trains that currently share tracks that wind around Point Defiance and along the shores of Puget Sound.
With the passenger trains shifted to the inland route through South Tacoma, Lakewood and DuPont, more freight service could be added on the Point Defiance tracks. And Amtrak trains that wouldn’t have to slow down around the Point Defiance curves would get from Seattle to Portland six minutes faster.
But none of those advantages benefit Lakewood directly. Instead, neighborhoods that rarely get train traffic now could experience the noise of up to 18 trains daily by 2012. Traffic intersections already busy at rush hour would come to complete halts as Amtrak trains speed through at 79 mph, requiring vehicles to stop at seven different intersections in Lakewood alone.
Last year, state Department of Transportation planners somehow decided that there was no need for a detailed assessment of the bypass’ traffic-related impacts – which means there would be no public hearings on the project. But how could there be only minimal impact when several trains daily would cut off the county’s second-biggest city from freeway access?
And that six minutes in saved time on the Seattle-Portland route? All it takes is an accident at one of the seven Lakewood intersections to negate that savings with time consumed by emergency response and investigation.
Witness an accident Tuesday involving an Amtrak train and a car trying to go around a gate at an intersection in Hardeeville, S.C. Four people were killed, and hours later the car was still wedged in the train, disrupting rail traffic on the line. The train passengers lost a lot more than six minutes when they had to be bused to their destination.
Even if the bypass is able to shave a few minutes off the Seattle-Portland Amtrak route, it would undoubtedly add time to the commutes of many Pierce County drivers who will have to wait at intersections that now aren’t being crossed by much train traffic. Fort Lewis alone estimates that the bypass will add a minute to the commute of drivers coming to and leaving the post.
And the state didn’t consider that kind of impact worth studying?
It very well might be a good idea to divert passenger trains to the inland route. But Lakewood should get more out of the change than noise and traffic problems. The city should hold out for Amtrak service, grade separations where that makes sense and noise walls in residential areas.