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Cities have valid concerns about rail bypass

Post by Cheryl Tucker on April 28, 2010 at 6:58 pm |
April 28, 2010 5:03 pm

This editorial will appear in Thursday’s print edition.

It’s understandable that state officials are hot to get their hands on a share of the $8 billion in federal stimulus money available for rail projects.

The quest for federal dollars is why a plan to separate freight and passenger trains through the South Sound – one that originally wasn’t going to be funded until about 2019 – is being fast-tracked, so to speak.

That’s a serious concern for the cities that will bear the brunt of the impacts when 14 Amtrak trains a day start traveling at 79 mph through several busy intersections.

The plan is for those trains, which now take the Point Defiance route, to be rerouted through South Tacoma, Lakewood and DuPont, chopping all of six minutes off the Seattle-to-Portland trip and leaving the scenic route to freight trains. The state, which will get nearly $600 million for its Seattle-to-Vancouver corridor, could begin construction on the bypass this fall.

Lakewood stands to get the worst of the impacts, with seven different intersections affected – most of them paralleling the busy South Tacoma Way/Pacific Highway South corridor. That city’s officials have been vocal in trying to get the state to at least modify the rail plan to increase safety measures with overpasses, and now DuPont has joined the fight. It only has one crossing, near Fort Lewis, but it’s already a busy one even without the holdups involved with 14 trains barreling through.

It would be one thing if Lakewood and DuPont at least got Amtrak service for their headaches. Not so. Residents who want to take the train will have to board in Tacoma.

Little wonder officials in those cities are peevish. They get all the negatives and no positives of having at-grade rail crossings through commercial and residential areas. They’re upset that the state is moving so fast and ignoring grade separations that would enhance safety. They know that some drivers and pedestrians are likely to be tempted to sneak around crossing gates to beat the train. When a train is moving at 79 mph, guess who wins that race?

State officials counter that overpasses and underpasses would be too expensive and jeopardize access to the federal money. They argue that extra horns, medians, lights and gates should suffice.

That sounds a lot like the state has determined that a few accidents are a price it’s willing to pay in order to rush the project through and get the federal money.

Another argument the state makes – that Lakewood didn’t oppose intersection upgrades for commuter rail service – is downright specious. Lakewood residents voted for commuter rail service and have been paying Sound Transit taxes for a long time to get it. The track and intersection upgrades already in the works mean they finally will see commuter rail. But they had virtually no say about whether they wanted the Amtrak trains – which travel twice as fast – speeding through town.

Lakewood and DuPont officials will try to make a case that the existing bypass plan isn’t good enough when they address the state Utilities and Transportation Commission in June. The commission should give them a fair hearing and consider the safety of local residents.

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