Photo by Sound Transit

On Monday, Sound Transit substantially completed the rail bridge over Pacific Avenue in Tacoma, marking a major milestone on the ‘D-to-M Street’ portion of the Sounder to Lakewood Extension Project. Pacific Avenue reopened to vehicle and transit traffic as well – nearly 2 months ahead of schedule – modifying detours on Pierce Transit Routes 1 and 53. Remaining work at the site involves the laying of track, berm construction, construction of a pedestrian underpass on A Street, signal and safety installations, etc.

In October the single-track bridge will serve 5 daily Sounder roundtrips to/from South Tacoma and Lakewood. The other 4 daily round-trips (2 peak, 2 reverse peak) will continue to originate/terminate at Tacoma’s Freighthouse Square.

In accordance with the 2012 Service Implementation Plan, Sound Transit will reconfigure its Pierce County services once Sounder service begins. Route 592 will be cut back to 15-minute headways but all trips will begin at DuPont, whereas currently only 1/3 do. Route 592 will also be rerouted off the SODO busway in favor of the Seneca/Edgar Martinez couplet taken by the 577/578. Route 593 will be eliminated and its service hours added to the 590/594, extending the window in which those routes have frequent service. Though Sound Transit had initially planned to move Route 574’s terminus to Lakewood Sounder Station (instead of the current Lakewood Towne Center), subsequent public comment shelved that plan for now.

This bridge also marks a major milestone for the eventual Point Defiance Bypass, even though they are separate projects with different funding structures. Within 5 years or so Amtrak will begin to use the bridge, shaving 6 minutes off Seattle to Portland trips and significantly improving reliability by reducing conflicts with freight traffic.

More coverage, from the Seattle Times and the Tacoma News Tribune.

43 Replies to “Sounder to Lakewood Construction Update”

  1. Zach,

    Is the six minute savings due to reduced running time, reduced padding due to higher reliability, or both? In other words, are there additional reductions in the scheduled time thanks to higher reliability, or is it a total of six minutes?

    1. My understanding is reduced running time and distance, although all of the ARRA money going to Amtrak Cascades is supposed to get reliability above 90%. My understanding is total reduction with this project is 6 or 7 minutes but reliability increase will be huge. With all ARRA projects time reduction may be a few minutes more.

      Although, if 100 coal trains a day are running in the corridor, I can’t imagine that doesn’t hurt some of the games that are going to be made.

      In other news, all of these stimulus projects will increase cascade trips to 6 per day, presumably with an earlier and later RT on each end, which will be amazing.

      1. So that means that the benefits of improved reliability are in *addition* to the six minutes reduced running time. Good to know!

        Point Defiance apparently accounts for *over half* of the delays on the entire Seattle-Portland route, and eliminating these delays will probably have more impact than the running time improvements.

    2. The 6 minute benefit is purely running time.

      The primary purpose of the project was reliability.

    1. The entire new line is only single track. Making it double track would not help much since the tressel just East of the tacoma dome station is only single track. Plus sounder trains do not run frequently enough to need double track.

      1. Sure, they don’t run frequently enough today to need double track, but given the expense of the project, I assume that trains will be using this corridor for the next 50 years at least, during which I think we all hope that we’ll have far more frequent rail service…

      2. Correct. There just won’t be enough volume on the line to justify making it double track. And that situation won’t change for many. many decades to come.

        Plus a lot of these trains are directional in nature, and a single track works just fine in that situation.

        That said however, one of the advantages of the berm over the post-and-beam design is that the berm is more easily expandable to double track – if and when we ever decide that we need double track……which is doubtful.

        So, good job ST.

      3. The design of the line leaves space for adding a second track (and bridge) later.

      4. The Point Defiance Bypass will add a second track from S 66th Street in Tacoma to Bridgeport Way in Lakewood; the grade crossings at 74th, Steilacoom, 100th, 108th and Bridgeport have all been constructed to accommodate the second track, and the right-of-way has been fully graded so that the track and signal system can be constructed and installed with minimal disruption to ongoing Sounder operations.

    2. It makes big sense. Basically passenger only on the new passenger cut-off. The dang tunnel under Point Defiance (Nelson Bennett Tunnel), that now carries virtually ALL traffic, is single track.

      1. Agreed; even with the single-tracked segment through the two tunnels (don’t forget Ruston Tunnel), BNSF’s Seattle Sub still has a practical capacity of 72 trains/day between Tacoma and Nisqually. (Citation: WSTC state rail study, I’m not digging up the link again.)

    3. It’s only single-track for a relatively short segment (it’s double track east of Tacoma where it rejoins BNSF, and it will be double track south of S 66th Street in Tacoma, and there’s a second track at Lakewood station so Cascades can pass parked Sounders.)

      They’ve analyzed the future need for double-tracking, and when the number of Cascades and Sounders goes up by several more per day, they’ll need double-tracking where the trestle currently is east of Tacoma Dome (in order to move passenger trains around Tacoma Rail freight locals while both are dealing with entering and exiting the BNSF lines, I believe).

      That trestle needs replacement anyway, so that’s the next unfunded project on the list. They still won’t need double tracking for the rest of the route until there are a LOT more trains per day — but they’ve made sure that there’s room to add a second track when it’s needed.

      Good planning.

  2. AFAIK, 6 minutes off the schedule, 3’24” instead of 3’30”. If the need for padding is reduced (likely) or eliminated (unlikely), many SEA-PDX trips could arrive in 3’05”.

    1. Because track from Lakewood to Nisqually has to be done by the state, and they’re taking their sweet time and funding highway expansions instead.

      1. Come on, Ben. When Rob McKenna gets elected this Amtrak work will be given TOP PRIORITY. LOL. I am sure AMTRAK will be at the top of Mitt’s agenda, as well. Hehe.

      2. The delay was caused *first* by the state delaying funding repeatedly (which the state did several years ago), and *second* by the Federal Government — which stepped in to fund the Lakewood to Nisqually segment — requiring a full Environmental Impact Statement rather than an Environmental Assessment. (Probably because of the Lakewood NIMBYs; a full EIS leaves them with practically no grounds for lawsuit, but an EA would be less bulletproof).

        The designs are essentially done (and would significantly improve the safety of the crossings in Lakewood), though there are options for some minor variations — but apparently it’s going to take two years of paperwork before contracts can be issued. Yeech.

      3. Paul has corrected my statement below. The details on different environmental impact documents are apparently beyond me (shouldn’t they standardize this?).

    2. Less snarkily, the state thought they could build the Point Defiance Bypass improvements using a catagorical exception to SEPA, but the feds said they needed to do a full blown EIS. Why that takes four years, I don’t know.

      1. The EIS for the FRA will be done this year, then by next year the FRA will rule on it. Assuming that they approve, construction starts in 2013 or later. Nothing currently on the state website says that construction will take four years. Now it may take four years for all the improvements, Point Defiance + the projects near Kelso, to improve things enough to add two more trains a day.

      2. The EIS issue cropped up when material costs rose to the point where WSDOT could no longer afford PDB with their budgeted funding allocation, so they shelved the project. A year or so later the grant money became available, so the state applied to the FRA for a piece of the pie, thereby rendering null the exemption the state had planned to use because the FRA requires an EIS for use of grant money. If WSDOT had been able to fund the project solely with state funds, under the original schedule construction would have wrapped up this summer.

        Of course, don’t forget that before Amtrak can switch trains over to the PDB, they need a new station facility in Tacoma. I believe I recently heard that planning work for this was underway.

      3. For the record, WSDOT is doing an Environmental Assessment (EA) for PDB, not an Environmental Impact Statement (EIS).

        I don’t think FRA requires an EIS for the use of grant money. Look at all the other FRA funded projects WSDOT is doing without an EA or EIS. They do, however, require NEPA documentation for their projects just like FHWA and FTA do.

        I suspect that when FRA made their NEPA threshold determination for PDB, they probably noted the public controversy and decided an EA was a more prudent course to take than a Documented Categorical Exclusion (DCE). A DCE would not have required a public process. Or FRA decided the project has other characteristics that make a DCE inappropriate.

      4. Thanks for the clarification, Paul; I don’t deal with the environmental side often enough and all those terms kind of blend together.

      5. DWHonan, the “new station facility in Tacoma” is not going to be that big a project; plans are to use some of the unused portions of Freighthouse Square, basically. They need a ticket counter, a waiting room, and some baggage handling space, but none of those take up that much space.

        I would expect that project to go quite fast. Amtrak is finishing the designs and property negotiations now, but Amtrak won’t start actually building it until later, since there’s no point in having it ready before the Bypass is built.

  3. I’ve taken the 574 from Lakewood Mall, connecting often from local PT buses, more often than I’ve taken the 592/594 from Lakewood Sounder Station, so a welcome addition. Although, it did make sense why the change from Lakewood Mall to Lakewood Station.

    I have no data to back this up, but what if every other 574 split at 512 so one trip to the Mall, the next to the Station? Ridership on the tail is light (the bus is usually relatively packed from 512 to the Dome to the Airport, but not on the Lakewood Mall end), so I wonder what would happen if the tail was split in half?

    Also, when I did take the 592 from Downtown Seattle to DuPont (I preferred Sounder for the outlets & tables), I’ve seen plenty of southbound pickups on the Busway, so – even though I would’ve benefitted from the reduced travel times – I was the one at the Public Hearing to say No to that change.

    1. Splits reduce ridership.

      The current plan is basically to replace Lakewood-Tacoma buses with the rail service to the extent possible; this is the lower-operating-cost thing to do.

  4. Trip time comparisons, Lakewood-Tacoma-Seattle:

    1:12 Sounder
    1:16 ST 594
    Slight time advantage to Sounder, coupled with reliability advantage and the comfort factor on a trip this long, makes it a clear improvement. They also don’t appear to be directly competing – Sounder only runs to lakewood when the 594 does not.

    0:20 Sounder
    0:30 ST 594
    Looks like a clear win for the new sounder, but ST 574 makes almost the same trip from Lakewood Transit Center just a few miles away in the same 20 minutes, and has much better frequency.

    I’ve never been a huge fan of Sounder. I feel like it’s set up to fail, with these small number of possible trips per day on shared ROW following a less-than-ideal alignment.

    But at the same time, Sounder riders are fiercely loyal; the few who do choose to pay the premium fare and arrange their commutes around the Sounder schedule are mostly folks who will avoid at all costs riding a bumpy, stinky, crowded bus. We have reliability problems on the freeway express buses anyway, and all modes are conjested at commute time, so Sounder is at least providing an alternative.

    1. Compare the running time of Sounder from Kent Station to downtown vs Metro 158/159/162. Huge advantage to Sounder–same at Auburn and Puyallup. Tacoma to Seattle Sounder riders aren’t the majority of Sounder’s riders. The majority of the riders board in the Kent valley stations.

      1. Only if you’re origin point is Kent Station and you work within walking distance of King St. Stn.
        Trips to Seattle CBD (Union-Pine) are about a push, and if you’re coming off East Hill and need to transfer, it’s about a push too, schedule wise.

      2. On the Tacoma-Seattle run, Sounder is way slower than the 59x series. I don’t even compare that. The Sounder corridor is all about the suburbs in between (Puyallup, Kent, and now Lakewood). Unfortunately, I can’t find stop-level statistics for Sounder, so I don’t know which of the south King stations is most relevant for comparisons.

      3. “Only if you’re origin point is Kent Station and you work within walking distance of King St. Stn.”
        …. or the buses hit congestion.

  5. Good to hear ST/Amtrak is coming along on this. I get the emails from them, but frankly I don’t read them since my head is more concentrated on the Northline.

    I think that the double track being non-existent isn’t a biggie, but what I think in a few years what BNSF and UP will be looking at is triple-tracking the mainline to PDX. I’m surprised they only have a capacity for 72 trains a day, that seems kind of paltry.

    1. Yeah, but that constraint is only present between Tacoma and Nisqually; the whole Seattle-Vancouver corridor has a practical capacity of 96 trains/day. Take 10 Amtrak trains/day out of the tunnels and that’s more capacity available for BNSF and UP to use, without any detriment on the remainder of the corridor since everything else is at least double-tracked.

      Triple-tracking the entire corridor for freight won’t happen; there just isn’t enough volume to justify the cost. (Consider that BNSF moves over 100 freight trains/day, plus Amtrak’s daily Southwest Chief, across New Mexico and Arizona with only two main tracks.) What will eventually happen is that WSDOT will construct additional dedicated passenger-only tracks in the corridor for 110mph Cascades service; this will generally be a single new track, with enough ~10-mile segments of two 110mph tracks for meets to support the ultimate 16 round-trip/day schedule that’s planned for whenever the whole PNWRC is completed.

      1. @ DW Honan; I see what you mean by not tripling the whole line from PDX to SEA. Since I used to live in Flagstaff right next to the mainline, the makeup of trains is a little different than up here. More intermodal, and moving at higher rates of speed as well. It truly is amazing to watch the Transcon at work,especially in places like on the hill west of Flag or out in Winslow.

        With the anticipation of more coal for either Rupert or Roberts Bank, those 110 mph portions become even more valuable! If Cherry Pt. gets a off-load facility, then there will be an even greater reason to increase mainline capacity.

      2. To be clear there are already triple-track sections planned and funded for the areas where freight trains exiting and entering ports and yards run verrrrry slooooowly on the mainline, which are the next limiting factors for the Cascades after Point Defiance Bypass. This includes the Vancouver Yard stuff and stuff near Kelso.

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