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‘We Can’t Wait’ for rail bypass? Job 1 is to make it safe

Post by TNT Editorial Board / The News Tribune on Aug. 23, 2012 at 5:45 pm |
August 23, 2012 5:49 pm

Red line shows new inland route for Amtrak trains if the Point Defiance Bypass is completed. Freight trains will continue along the shoreline. (USGS)

This editorial will appear in Friday’s print edition.

Maybe the Obama administration can’t wait to get started on the Point Defiance Bypass rail project. But South Sound communities that would feel the brunt of increased train traffic aren’t in a big hurry.

Under the president’s “We Can’t Wait” initiative, the administration is freeing up $473 million in unspent appropriations to expedite four construction projects – one of them being the $90 million bypass. Getting that federal money for the project is expected to move its timeline up about six months, with the state Department of Transportation hoping to begin construction in 2015.

The bypass – which would separate freight and passenger trains as they move through the South Sound – has long been on the wish list for Burlington Northern Santa Fe and Amtrak. It would allow freight trains to continue traveling along the scenic waterfront while rerouting high-speed Amtrak passenger trains inland – through not-so-scenic business districts in South Tacoma and Lakewood and on through DuPont.

Understandably, those communities are concerned about increased noise, traffic delays and potential safety issues where rails cross over city streets. Amtrak plans to increase the number of trains currently running between Seattle and Portland to six per day. That likely could increase in future years to meet growing demand.

These trains could reach speeds of up to 79 mph through areas with 17 at-grade crossings. Few crossings feature overpasses or underpasses to separate rail and vehicular traffic. One is at the relatively low-traffic 66th Street South in Tacoma, but heavily used arterials such as South 56th, South 72nd and Bridgeport Way are at grade with the railroad tracks.

The communities impacted by the increased train traffic would get little out of the deal except headaches, as there currently are no plans for the Amtrak trains to stop in either Lakewood or DuPont.

Lakewood so far has been the most vocal about seeking mitigation for the impacts of increased rail traffic and has said it will sue if it’s not satisfied. It recognizes the benefits of rail service; after all, it will soon reap the benefits of slower Sounder trains serving its station along Pacific Highway Southwest. But it is rightly concerned about a growing number of high-speed Amtrak trains barreling through at-grade crossings.

Ideally, the cost of the bypass would include grade separation at the most high-traffic crossings and enhanced noise mitigation for neighborhoods where residents never banked on heavy rail traffic. That’s something worth waiting for.

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