The City of Lakewood and the Politics of “No!”

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November 15, 2012 by seradt

WSDOT has been ambitious with its long-term goals for a world-class intercity rail service between Portland and Seattle, while also being pragmatic with its realization, opting for piecemeal improvements to increase speed and reliability. In marked contrast to California, whose citizens will soon be carving out a multi-billion dollar, true high speed line through the established areas separating Los Angeles and San Francisco, Washington has chosen to avoid the politically lethal gamble of large-scale construction and eminent domain takings. Here, the public would invest and improve an already existing private sector right-of-way, sharing a well engineered route that will reproduce most of the benefits of a passenger dedicated line while shaving off a majority of its would-be monumental capital costs. **

Though this slow-and-steady approach spread the capital costs of improving the corridor over a digestible two decades of state budgets, twenty years that have seen the service’s ridership increase by multiples, the development of a high-performance, high quality service this region demands still remains many years away. In the absence of direct and indirect government subsidies, like those established for roadway construction (2) and the airline industry (2), or a significant cash infusion (again, like those which have been provided to airlines and roadways), the shovel-ready projects which were readied by WSDOT and mercifully funded by the state over the decades have defined the incremental process that is our region’s investment in intercity rail. Then, in 2010, following the election of transit-progressive Barack Obama, the game was changed. Employing his powers of the presidency, the administration’s appropriation of a nearly $800 million cash infusion of 2008 federal stimulus funds into the corridor was an extraordinary event in the annals of not only Washington, but in the entire country. Representing, according to the Seattle Times, “an unprecedented amount, equaling three-quarters of what’s been spent on passenger rail here over the past 17 years without federal help,” the stimulus money was awarded to railroad lines that possessed enormous potential to become bedrocks of regional transportation systems. Most certainly, the Cascades’ funding portion will be spent on a rail line that has been doggedly improving infrastructure and establishing a ridership base with mediocre support, and which has done so without the swiftness and reliability such a huge capital investment will be expected to engender.

With the projects already identified by the state and with many of them previously pre-engineered—if not wholly ready for funding and immediate construction—Washington State was uniquely situated to snatch up a healthy portion of the $8 billion of funding grants provided for high speed and intercity rail projects. In the ensuing national competition for rail monies, the state came out a winner. Governor Gregoire expressed with candor that, without doubt, “we got more than our fair share”. Truthfully, the state deserved it. Progressive in its time-tested resolve as it aimed to build a quality passenger operation from the ground up, Washington State earned every last dime. Today, the entirety of the $780 million grant has now been diverted to needed projects skirting the length of the corridor: new sidings, main lines and switches in the Skagit River Valley and elsewhere; flyover junctions near Vancouver in the south; grade separations; mudslide mitigation; rail and tie replacement, tempering and grinding; new bridges and signaling, new and extended platforms, and so forth. Projects are only recently entering initial construction phases, if at all.

Of the essential components in WSDOT’s plans for the Cascades that are now funded by the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, the Point Defiance Bypass ranks paramount in importance. An absolutely critical rerouting of passengers trains onto an interior rail route that parallels Interstate 5, the bypass eviscerates in one fell swoop the speed restrictions, capacity constraints and bottlenecks that mar the marvelously scenic Puget Sound line west and south of Tacoma. The contemporary routing—curving as it does along the sinuous shoreline, through the single-tracked Nelson Bennett Tunnel, and around Commencement Bay—is slow, susceptible to mudslides, clogged with freight trains plying the main line, and, most troubling, lacking capacity due to the single-tracked, mile long tunnel under Point Defiance and Ruston. Any long-term Cascades plan which purports to feature world-class levels of service requires passenger trains to be removed from the Point Defiance line. Crown cutting and double-tracking the existing, heavily used tunnel for increasing traffic, or perhaps excavating a roughly parallel bore to the east, both several hundred million dollar endeavors at minimum, are simply unreasonable answers to a problem that already has an existing, ready-to-use solution. ***

The alternative is an existing, underused right-of-way that is the straighter, shorter and older sibling of the line embracing the waters; indeed, it is part of the original transcontinental route built into the city of Tacoma and the Puget Sound back in 1873. The Prairie Line, as it is known, stretching from Nisqually near Olympia to Tacoma and comprising what is called the Lakeview Subdivision, was for a short while the lifeline of the area until the Point Defiance tracks also reached Commencement Bay around the turn of the twentieth century. The Prairie Line was thus promptly demoted to a short line and saw a dramatic decrease in traffic as a result, save for the freight locals and the occasional passenger train destined for the prairie and lumber towns situated in the center of the state. Once passenger rail collapsed, however, alongside the decay of Tacoma as a light-manufacturing center, only the occasional local freight rolled over the rails of the Prairie Line, rails that increasingly had seen better days.

It was this downtrodden right-of-way that Sound Transit purchased in 2004 and 2005 from BNSF to host its commuter trains between Tacoma and Lakewood, and the same line WSDOT would have the Cascades roll over as their client, for the variety of aforementioned reasons. There are plenty other benefits to the bypass that are rare for large infrastructure projects, too. Having been laid in the 1800’s and been in operation ever since, the retooling of an existing rail line for passenger revenue service would not demand eminent domain takings like that of a new interior right-of-way. The transition would therefore be very natural. Additionally, the communities adjacent to the track would already be comfortable with life next to the railroad, and thus the public engagement would involve more discussion of the line’s reactivation, as opposed to having to persuade doubters about a host of concerns, specifically safety related ones. The line would allow for, at last, the addition of service on the Cascades and support over a dozen more once future, now-unfunded projects are complete, namely the laying of high speed track, while also soaring on-time reliability rates from the current 66% to above 88%, and cut ten minutes from the total trip time (page 9). Excitingly, once outside of urban areas, the bypass would be the first area on the corridor to have speeds transition to 110 miles per hour, a notable speed not yet matched this side of the Mississippi (and not likely to until California HSR begins to operate, that is). Next, with public-owned Sound Transit having already purchased the line and undertaken significant upgrades to the aging track, including constructing complex new right-of-way between Freighthouse Square to M Street in Tacoma, WSDOT’s burden to rehabilitate and construct track would be dramatically reduced, and two government agencies will have coordinated to produce useful public infrastructure. Finally, on that note, the public would have a brand new, passenger-dedicated right-of-way—an absolutely treasure—supporting the on-time arrival and departures of their taxpayer-owned trains in a critical area, all for the very low price of $89.1 million (or $4.5 million per mile of higher speed trackage, and that price includes a double-tracked portion and associated railroad systems).

With $56.384 million dollars already allocated by the state legislature through legislative packages dating from 2003 and2005, and with solid environmental, operations and financial planning completed as early as 2006 in WSDOT’s Cascades Long Range Plan (review chapter five, pages 17 to 18), all showcasing the state’s early, well-established intention of rerouting trains over the bypass, it would seem that WSDOT had had all its ducks in a row when it was awarded the stimulus grants that would obviously go toward eradicating the funding gap that was plaguing an $89.1 million bypass that had only $59.8 million in allocated, but not dedicated (from my understanding of archived documents), state funds. In reality, however, despite the passage of time, two state funding packages, at least two thorough studies, the expressions of interest, WSDOT politicking for the securing of said funds, and a simple, expressed will to build the Point Defiance Bypass, it has not been enough to placate the persistent concerns of Lakewood, Washington.

Incorporated out of suburban Pierce County in 1996, Lakewood, a city without a downtown, is the heart of the opposition to the Point Defiance Bypass, and is the largest population center dissected by it. With city leaders decrying its myriad of alleged, serious negative impacts on the city, they have formally opposed the construction of the rail line. Indeed, if the criticisms leveled against the bypass are deemed legitimate by the reviewing party of the project’s environmental impact statement (EIS), in this instance the FRA, the city of Lakewood and other detractors could derail plans for the construction of the bypass for a significant period of time, triggering future studies and reviews and ensuring many years of delay for the improvement of the Cascades Corridor. Fascinatingly, a low-density city of 60,000 people—and the term city is employed very loosely here—with a civic history shorter than that of the well-studied and engineered bypass itself, might stand in the way of significantly improved intra-regional connectivity for millions.

Though Lakewood would be aggressively righteous in its wrangling over issues were those concerns legitimate, the problem is that their concerns are not legitimate, and are in fact blatantly superficial: Lakewood desires concessions from the state. Particularly with regards to traffic mitigation, the star issue of a suburban autotopia famously hard to navigate, Lakewood seeks concessions that would add millions to the bypass project, millions the state cannot afford even with the infusion of stimulus funds (note that the long-term plan for the Cascades, with 2 hour and 30 minute services to Portland sporting up to 13 round trips, would cost $6.7 billion, more than eight times the amount of the stimulus grants). While affected-communities deserve to be critical of infrastructure projects and have a say in their progress, Lakewood leaders are explicit in their wishes to stop the project should they not be satisfied with a project over a decade in the making. The question is, what would it take to satisfy the politicians of Lakewood?

According to Lakewood officials, the safety impacts of a renewed rail line hosting 79 mile per hour trains would be devastating for multiple reasons, including increased at-grade crossing incidences and traffic worsening, noise, quality of life degradation, amongst others. It would be worthwhile to delve into each concern to examine their merits, which will ultimately prove them to be spurious.

Most vocal of the critiques of the Point Defiance Bypass line are its effects on traffic flow through the city of Lakewood and the safety issues caused by the number and speeds of through trains. On the face of it, the concern is wholly legitimate and most certainly warrants a comprehensive study to examine the side-effects of increased operations on the existing railroad; however, unfortunately for Lakewood, WSDOT has conducted exhaustive studies as part of the environmental impact assessment (EIA) required of the stimulus grant application, and those exhaustive studies have concluded that while non-negligible impacts will arise with the bypass line, the impacts are minor and are no more arresting than current, major traffic issues that plague the area and that are not a consequence of trains. Indeed, the peak hourly 45 seconds it would take from the lowering of the gates to the raising of the gates that would allow for a 79 mile an hour Cascades train to pass would not greatly impact a suburban area that already experiences horrendous auto delays. In addition, likely much to the embarrassment and disbelief to Lakewood officials, WSDOT’s bypass EIA states that improvement to roadway intersections immediately before the crossings, namely the timing of the gates to coincide with passing trains, would in fact better the traffic flow in four of the intersections (page IX). As for safety reasons, trains the world over travel through enhanced grade crossings at speeds that are at least 79 miles an hour or more, including in communities not so far from Lakewood, like at Puyallup, Sumner, Auburn, Kent, Tukwila, and the area near the Georgetown neighborhood in South Seattle. These Washington state communities see dozens of daily high speed freight trains in addition to the passenger services already present on the line—a rail traffic make-up that will never be replicated in passenger-dedicated Lakewood—and those communities, with all their grade crossings, are very much safe, healthy, expanding, and educated on the dangers of trains. While grade crossing accidents are a serious threat to rail transit, enhanced safety protections for crossings, including wayside horns and barriers that cover the entirety of the roadway and prevent access to the tracks, do much in the mitigation of harm; however, in a world where car crashes kill and injure hundreds of thousands of people every year and planes fall from the sky, train accidents will occasionally happen in some form, albeit rarely. It is important to be honest of that reality, without giving away the impression that we should not do all that we can to avoid any such incident. Ultimately, the construction of multi-million dollar bridges over a modestly active passenger line, with trains travelingnot at high speeds, is thus wholly unnecessary at this time, and the state agrees.

Next in the list of concerns is noise. Due to well-intentioned but malignant FRA regulations that require railroads to blast their roaring, echoing air horns at every grade crossing, naturally alienating every residential community near the tracks, the concern is absolutely understandable and justifiable. However, the FRA provides exemptions for grade crossings that use wayside horns, horns that blast concentrated sound onto the immediate crossing area and remove the locomotive horn requirement. Such horns will be employed at Lakewood crossings (page XII). While not peaceful silence, wayside horns are dramatically quieter than their locomotive counterparts, and are part of a (presumably) successful strategy to bring railroads back into communities without residents resorting to grabbing their alcohol drenched towels, lighters and pitchforks. In addition, the lighter, swifter Cascades equipment (at least in comparison to conventional bloated, FRA compliant equipment), particularly once attached to new, more efficient diesel locomotives that will be purchased by the state as part of the stimulus grant award, are marvelously quiet. Wholly considered, the Point Defiance Bypass, a passenger-dedicated line save for the occasional freight trains that already roll over the line, would not impose a significant noise burden on the city of Lakewood.

The final attempt to seriously undermine WSDOT’s bypass efforts are the most frivolous and outlandish of all: the claims of the bypass undercutting Lakewood’s quality of life. Already home to higher crime rates, a segregation of incomes remarkable for our state, insurmountable traffic jams, and featuring no architectural or physical identity to speak of (and perhaps lacking a civic identity as well), a rail line skirting the edge of Lakewood’s city boundary is the least of its worries. In fact, such a rail line, with its promises to connect the city to the commuter and (with a connection in Tacoma, or even Olympia) the intercity network, actualizes an enormous opportunity to bring Lakewood much further into the regional economic fold. This point is moot, though, to Lakewood officials who want the rail line to be bridged, overpassed—even tunneled!—all multi-hundred million dollar expenditures by themselves for the most marginal of benefits, before a Cascades train can ever travel through the few miles of city boundary. Councilman Paul Bocchi’s tunnel suggestion, to eradicate what he claims is the bypass’ creation of an “economic apartheid” by dissecting poor and minority neighborhoods, is indicative of the irrational demands of the city. Though the line does indeed pass nearby the edges of minority communities in a very racially and ethnically diverse Lakewood, and it does indeed skirt the edge of the impoverished neighborhood of Tillicum at the city’s southernmost boundary along Interstate 5, it also skirts or passes through the middle and upper income areas of North Seattle, Ballard, Mukilteo, Edmonds and Vancouver, B.C., many of which are predominantly Caucasian in race. Such changes in scenery and demographic composition are intrinsic to lengthy corridors, and this is particularly true of a line that has been in existence since the early pioneer era. The Prairie Line, especially where suburban zones developed about it, has never promoted the segregation of neighborhoods, nor will it start. Contrary to Councilman Bocchi’s unreasoned and inflammatory commentary about a wildly beneficial public infrastructure project, the settled populations adjacent to the active, 140 year old rail line will not be effected by more than the temporary construction noise of any ordinary infrastructure project, or the occasional train.

Other criticisms, of course, like those from Lakewood councilman Don Anderson, who according to the Tacoma News Tribune, “also worried about increased suicides because patients released from Western State Hospital suffering from depression would have an easier time reaching the inland route,” a route over four miles away, should never be legitimized with an official response. In all likelihood, it is highly probably that most Lakewood officials are simply annoyed over the inconveniencing caused by a renewed rail line for trains that will never stop in Lakewood.

Lakewood, ultimately, is doing nothing more than voicing its corporate self-interest, trying its best to extract concessions from a state that has publicly vested itself in using a rail corridor through its city boundary; other municipalities would undoubtedly have undertaken a very similar effort to stall and be heard. Nonetheless, the time to stall energy efficient transit projects has concluded. In an epoch of widening traffic jams, lofty gas prices and the more sizable population densities that are a consequence of both, Lakewood would be much better prepared for the burgeoning urban renaissance by supporting passenger and commuter rail in its center, advocating for flawlessly timed connections between the two systems, and coupling its economy with dynamic cities like Seattle, Portland, Tacoma, the Vancouvers and the region as a whole. This, as opposed to encouraging the bluster emanating from its city leaders. I would imagine the citizenry agrees.

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** It is important to note that, as the metro population of Cascadia’s largest cities are far more diminutive than conurbations dotting the world’s profitable high speed lines, and with intercity distances not being of sufficient length for very high speed travel, our region could not supply the ridership required to justify the lofty price tag of a passenger-dedicated very high speed line.

*** An impending project to crown cut, or notch, the ceiling liner of Stampede Tunnel in the Cascades would cost anywhere from $30 to $40 million dollars, if BNSF CEO Matt Rose’s estimates are correct. With a per foot cost being $4065 per foot, working merely to notch the antique, curving, thin liner of Nelson Bennett tunnel, encased as it is in loose soil, would cost at minimum $20 to 25 million. However, local railway infrastructure engineer Thomas White’s objections to this idea raise the specter of it being a far more difficult project than a simple notching, and thus far costlier. This estimated cost to notch the tunnel would represent at least 1/4 of the $89.1 million expense of the entire Bypass project, if not much more, and would not provide the increased freight and passenger capacity, or better yet the passenger-dedicated right-of-way, that the bypass will deliver.

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