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Lawmakers should intervene in rail dispute

Post by TNT Editorial Board / The News Tribune on March 7, 2013 at 5:45 pm with No Comments »
March 7, 2013 4:18 pm
Map shows Point Defiance Bypass route adjacent to I-5. (WSDOT)
Map shows Point Defiance Bypass route adjacent to I-5. (WSDOT)

This editorial will appear in Friday’s print edition.

A decision by the Federal Railroad Administration on the controversial Point Defiance Bypass is great for Amtrak. But it could be an economic blow to the future of several South Sound communities and add to the transportation nightmare thousands of commuters already face every day.

And it’s all to shave a few minutes off of Amtrak trains’ time between Seattle and Portland, and run a few more trains on that route. That’s an unacceptable tradeoff.

On Monday, the FRA gave the go-ahead to the $89 million bypass project that would reroute Amtrak trains from along the Puget Sound shoreline through South Tacoma, Lakewood and DuPont. A three-year study found that the project – which would extend by 3.5 miles the rail line now used by the Sounder train to Lakewood – would not adversely affect the environment.

Perhaps, but sending high-speed trains down tracks that cross at-grade intersections would certainly lead to accidents, huge traffic disruptions and economic impacts, especially to Lakewood, which has several at-grade intersections in high-congestion areas. Lakewood, which opposes the bypass plan, doesn’t even get an Amtrak stop for all of the headaches that the trains will cause.

Shutting down surface roads as Amtrak trains pass through 14 times a day at speeds up to 79 mph – virtually adjacent to Interstate 5 in many places – will only worsen the traffic nightmare around Joint Base Lewis-McChord, making it harder to get on- and off-base, and between Camp Murray and JBLM. Emergency vehicles trying to get to Madigan Army Medical Center could get stuck in the congestion.

And that’s if everything goes well. A train accident on tracks near I-5 easily could create backups stretching miles in both directions.

Is making the train ride to Portland 10 minutes quicker worth the threat to public safety and all the disruption it will create for thousands of drivers? Is the state really that desperate for federal rail funds?

Lakewood still can challenge the project in court, but that would be costly. Ideally, the South Sound’s members of Congress would get involved with this issue and find a way to delay the bypass until money is available for grade separation at the busiest intersections. They also should get a guarantee that the route will not at some future time be converted into a freight corridor.

The only thing worse than having several short, high-speed trains going down those tracks would be having a lot of extremely long, extremely slow freight trains coming through. Lakewood, South Tacoma and JBLM might as well shut down if that were to happen.

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