Lakeview Subdivision at I-5 and Gravelly Lake Drive, Lakewood (2010 photo by the author)

Roughly three weeks ago WSDOT completed the required Environmental Assessment (EA) for the Point Defiance Bypass (PDB).  You can wade through the full 1,500 pages if you dare, but to the casual reader I would suggest the concise Executive Summary. For those unfamiliar with the project, a small sampling of 4 years of STB coverage can be found here, here, here, and here.

It is wholly predictable that rebuilding and upgrading an existing single-track railway would create no significant environmental impacts, especially when its construction will allow for greatly increased diversion of vehicle trips to train trips.  Nonetheless, it is a relief to note that the EA indeed found no significant negative impacts to air quality, noise/vibration, soils, wetlands, flora/fauna, social justice, or cultural resources.  Temporary construction impacts will be aggressively mitigated through Best Management Practices (BMPs).

What about transportation impacts?  Traffic around Joint Base Lewis McChord is notoriously terrible, and while a good portion of local opposition hints of NIMBYism, Department of Defense and Lakewood officials have had some legitimate concerns about the project’s impacts on the obsolete, overburdened, and underbuilt interchanges adjacent to JBLM.  Interestingly, the EA found that building the PDB will actually improve Level of Service (LOS) at Thorne Lane (Log Center Gate), Berkeley St (Madigan Gate), and Barksdale Rd (Dupont Gate) (page 4-17). Signal timings will improve, sidewalks will be rebuilt, and Lakewood will have added a lane on the Freedom Bridge, among many other small projects.  2030 Level of Service at 41st Division Drive (Main Gate) will still be failing (Level F) whether the project is built or not.  Lastly, including the construction of the Cross Base Highway in the 2030 demand model does nothing to reduce projected vehicle delays (page 162).

It is clear from this EA that the addition of 14 daily passenger rail trips, each causing average vehicle delays of 45-55 seconds, is the least of the South Sound’s traffic concerns.  Meanwhile, the eventual doubling or tripling of Cascades capacity is a great public benefit that opens up great possibilities for a fully-integrated, regionally-funded passenger rail corridor (maybe even with integrated ticketing?).

If you would like to show your support for the project, you may submit public comment on the EA through November 9, and there are open houses tomorrow and Thursday:

  • Wednesday, Oct. 24, from 4 to 6:30 p.m. at the Clover Park Technical College Rotunda Building, 4500 Steilacoom Blvd., Lakewood
  • Thursday, Oct. 25, from 4 to 6:30 p.m. at DuPont City Hall, 1700 Civic Drive, DuPont

The Oct. 25 meeting in DuPont will serve as both an open house and a public hearing where FRA and WSDOT will take public testimony. The DuPont open house will run from 4 to 5 p.m., followed by the public hearing from 5 to 6:30 p.m.

42 Replies to “Point Defiance Bypass Environmental Update”

  1. Property acquisition for additional parking west or north of Freighthouse Square is anticipated.

    Niiiiice. We can’t even build a minor rail project without building more parking.

    1. Well, they’re also likely going to build a 2nd platform to accommodate the Starlight west of the existing platform, so maybe the property acquisition they’ll do for platform construction will just retain the parking that is already there, making it “additional parking” only in the sense that it will be newly public rather than private. At least one can hope…

      But yes, Tacoma Dome doesn’t need more parking…it already has 2,300 free stalls and there are many other adjacent surface paylots, some as cheap as $1/day.

      1. Not a single taxpayer penny should be spent on a single parking space in the TDome area – not a single penny.

      2. The problem with Tacoma Dome Station is that 2,300 of the stalls are pretty much spoken for. Theres no long term parking at TDS, nor is there really capasity to add it without new construction. The paylots, IIRC will not allow you to buy multiple day or week stays. Paying a modest rate for parking i think is acceptable to most people, provided the parking is secured and monitored. I dont think you could get the rates charged at the Airport (10-30/day depending on location) at the station in tacoma, but $2 or 3 per day for amtrak riders to help cover O&M i dont think is a bad deal.

    2. Why not… it’s not like anyone is building anything worthwhile in the area at the moment. Maybe the land can eventually be used for TOD if Tacoma starts experiencing meaningful growth.

      1. Building impervious surface just for the sake of it seems like poor environmental stewardship.

  2. I’ve never understood why it is expected to take another five years to re-lay the track and upgrade the 5-6 existing crossings. Does anyone know the answer?

    1. Probably because politically WA state is more interested in big highway projects, such as Columbia crossing, Seattle tunnel highway, and 520 bridge replacement.

      1. Bingo. If the Legislature were pushing this project hard it would be done by now. The Legislature specifically. If you look at the Cascades Long Term Plan, you find that bits and pieces of it keep getting delayed because state legislative funding keeps being pushed out to “next biennium”. The legislature needs to actually commit to building the projects if it wants them to be done on time, and so far it hasn’t.

        So your state legislature votes matter — a lot.

    2. About 2.5 years of design and 1.5 years of construction. Design generally can’t advance very far until the environmental process is complete, which will be next spring for this project. It really isn’t that different from a lot of highway projects.

      1. Design is complete and the project is shovel-ready. The ONLY reason an EA was required was because WSDOT had to obtain federal funding to build the project due to increases in material/labor costs causing the construction estimate to exceed the amount initially budgeted by the state, and the economic downtown resulted in no additional funding being available to go to construction when the design work was finished in the spring of 2010.

      2. This is not completely accurate; the legislature had allocated funding to complete the project “later” (starting construction in 2016, I believe?). If the legislature had allocated more funding earlier, WSDOT would not have had to request federal funding.

        It worked out OK as it is, but more legislature funding would get these rail projects done a lot faster.

    3. Re-laying the tracks and upgrading the signals and crossings won’t take too long, it’s the planning and design process that will take forever. Every community along the route will have to be involved in the process, along with JBLM, BNSF, Amtrak, WSDOT, DOT, FRA, Tribal authorities….

      1. Now if someone could come up with money to finish the platform and build a small rail yard in DuPont to extend Sounder down there, as well as install adiquate facilities for an Amtrak suburban stop at Lakewood…

      2. An Amtrak stop at Lakewood would have the same corridor-wide result as Stanwood: Little additional gain in ridership at the cost of significantly impacting overall travel time. A few seconds here and there might seem to not make much of a difference, but when you add up a few seconds many, many times over the length of the corridor you’re suddenly lengthening schedules by minutes. Adding a Cascades station stop in Lakewood will kill any chance of ever achieving the stated goal of Seattle-to-Portland trips at 2 hrs 30 minutes at 110mph top speed. (125mph has been ruled out because the additional operating costs required to get up to that max speed — primarily fuel consumption — outweigh the time gains provided by going a little bit faster.)

  3. I would hope that WSDOT is also actively working to match (outside of urban areas) the speed increase (to 110 mph) currently being tested on the Chicago-St.Louis Amtrak route. While still not true high speed rail, that would be enough to get trip time to < 2.5 hours, which would make the Cascades service better than car travel and competitive with air. Even though the bypass is necessary before the speed increase improvements can happen, it should be the plan (specifically, the 5 year plan – not the 20-40 year plan).

    1. Probably not before some of the third main track projects go in. BNSF doesn’t want to maintain a higher track class, and it’s their railroad.

      1. The plan is indeed for the 110 mph speeds to be on the third main track. The other tracks will go up to 90 mph.

        (“The plan” are the Long Range, Medium Range, and Short Range plans for Amtrak Cascades from WSDOT.)

        However, the benefits from the Pt. Defiance Bypass are a lot larger than the benefits from going from 79 mph to 110 mph. You always get the best benefit from speeding up the slowest sections.

    2. The Pt. Defiance tracks are owned by Sound Transit and they will be upgraded to 79mph operations for Amtrak trains. 110mph operation is not funded at this time and until a source of funds is identified, Amtrak will not exceed 80mph on the Cascades corridor.

      1. The Pt. Defiance BYPASS tracks are owned by ST–the Pt. Defiance tracks are owned by BNSF.

      2. Guy,

        I think most of us knew what you meant to state. The upgraded Prairie line will be an improvement in speed; though less scenic. But, hey, you can always ride BoltBus for the scenery, eh?

      3. I was always disappointed that this project did not go a step further and aim for 110-125mph operations south of Tacoma, with grade-separated crossings. If we can’t get higher speeds on ST-owned ROW with newly rebuilt track, when are we going to ever get it?

      4. Peak speed is a rather poor metric to focus on and WSDOT has been right to focus on average speed instead for the Cascade service.

        Get the average speed between Seattle and Portland up to 65 mph (including dwell times) and the Cascades will beat the freeway every time – in addition to being just plain more reliable and a better experience.

        110 mph over a short stretch just won’t do much to improve this service in a practical sense, although I’ve always thought that 110 mph in that stretch just north of Woodland would be awesome for marketing purposes.

      5. It’s a short segment of track with a few curves, crossings and lots of community resistance along the way. Figure the cost to build the grade separations and the high speed track, then calculate the time savings and it’s a lot of money spent for very little time savings. The 110 tracks will be more beneficial between Olympia and Vancouver WA–straighter ROW, fewer stations and crossings. It takes a while for a diesel locomotive to get up to 110 and tangent tracks are required to keep the speed up.

      6. Chris, 110mph south of Lakewood is planned for the final build-out of the PNWRC. This will also include a new flyover connection at Nisqually with broader curves to help passenger trains maintain speed. GOBH is correct that 79mph will be the max corridor speed until funding sources are located to construct the 3rd/4th main tracks necessary for dedicated 110mph operation, not to mention significant upgrades to the signal system.

      7. The Pt. Defiance Bypass will actually be the single most beneficial project on the entire Portland-Seattle corridor.

        It’s not the 6 minutes time saved — it’s the fact that it increases schedule reliability from the current ~75% to upwards of 95%.

        This is because it eliminates the last bit of single track shared with freight (which also happens to have 20 mph speed limits). That is a terrible source of delays.

        This is really important for ridership. Really REALLY important. On-time performance has the largest impact on ridership of pretty much anything; if the trains run on time, a LOT more people will take them.

      8. I don’t dispute that the bypass is more significant now than getting any short segment to a higher 110 mph peak speed. Nevertheless, a high speed segment will have a more significant “halo effect” for the Cascades service that the bypass can never achieve in PR terms. Just look at how much coverage nationwide that Amtrak received from its 111 mph test run on a short segment of the Chicago-St.Louis route. Also, if the whole of the south Tacoma through Vancouver section (about 110 miles) were upgraded, then you do get a bigger impact on trip time than the 6-10 minutes achieved with the bypass.

      9. I see what you mean about the Public Relations benefits of a high top speed.

        However, the improved reliability will have a massive effect on *ridership*, and skyrocketing ridership has its own PR benefits.

        Cascades is about due for an update to the long-range plans. The choice of priority projects seems to have changed a little bit since the last plan was issued (judging by the ARRA grant submissions).

        According to the last published version of the Cascades plan, the next step after the currently-funded projects in WA is indeed to have stretches of third track with 110 mph speed limits. (It appears from grant applications that the replacement of the trestle east of Tacoma Dome station, with modern double-track viaducts, is now higher-priority. There is also a short list of projects in Oregon, between the Columbia River and Portland Union Station, which Oregon has done very little work nothing about.)

      10. Yes, that section through NW Portland does seem to slow to a crawl, but not quite so badly as the approach into Vancouver, BC!

    3. If you’ve ever tried going from downtown Seattle to Downtown Portland by plane you’ll know that the train is already competitive in time and 1/3 the price. If they can get the time down to 2:30 it will be the fastest and cheapest way to go between the cities bar none.

  4. I for one am glad to hear that the darned EIS is done, and now they can finally move on to actually building the thing. This has taken far too long…

  5. Sooooo, with too much in-out traffic to handle with cars, it sounds like JBLM needs its own train stop. Well, to me that’s what it sounds like.

    Given the location of Lakewood Sounder station, I suppose the minimal way to do this would be with a big pedestrian overpass and a new gate, connected to the on-base bus system. Then order the soldiers to stop driving in and out of the base unless they’re driving trucks carrying equipment; they’re soldiers, they take orders.

    The less minimal way would be to extend Sounder to one or more “JBLM” stations on the base.

    Any of this would require that the military start thinking differently about energy and transportation, however. And while the *Navy* has shown strong indications of doing so, the Army and *especially* the Air Force have become hidebound organizations which are going to keep doing exactly the same thing they’ve always done, even if it causes them to lose wars, as it frequently does.

    1. Much as you’d like to believe it public transit to JBLM won’t win any wars. What you’ve fundamentally missed it that the traffic isn’t from “soldiers that take orders”. The majority of the traffic is civilian contractors. The next big contributor is family members who often times have to travel to jobs a great distance from JBLM with no transit alternative. Third is the huge amount of traffic that has absolutely nothing to do with the military.

      1. Oh-kay, what the hell is going on with the demographics here?

        If it’s family members driving to arbitrary “jobs a great distance from JBLM”, most of them will be employed in the Seattle-Tacoma metro area; they’ll take public transit, and it’ll give them shorter trips.

        If it’s “civilian contractors” who come in as commuters, they can also take public transit, just like for any other large employer.

        If it’s civilian contractors coming in with trucks full of equipment, that’s obviously different.

      2. In other words, we have three categories:

        (1) people commuting to JBLM for work. Obvious target for train service.
        (2) people commuting out of JBLM for work. Obvious target for train service.
        (3) people driving trucks of equipment in and out of JBLM. Can’t be served by train.

        Is it really #3 which is creating the traffic? I find that impossible to believe.

      3. What is the transit access at JBLM? Is the McChord gate really right across the street from the Sounder station and a 594 and 202 stop? Is there a PT route that goes into the base? What about base shuttles to get to other parts of the base, particularly those that are closer to the other gates that have little or no transit access?

        Reservists come from Seattle and all around, and have to be in by 5:30am Saturday and Sunday, and I imagine it would take a significant additional amount of time to wait for a base shuttle and get to their unit in another part of the base. So it’s just not feasable to do on transit, unfortunately. Reservists also go in during the weekday to take care of paperwork and other things; transit is more feasable for that.

        Other bases have better levels of transit. Camp Pendleton has an all-day city bus from the Oceanside train station that goes through it and out another side, as well as base shuttles. Great Lakes (Chicago) has a Metra station. Pacific Fleet (San Diego) has a light rail station.

      4. The street leading to the main gate is right across the Freeway. It’s a long as walk and then from the main gate it’s another long ass walk to anything. McChord in general is spread out all over the place. It’s one of those military things; don’t put all your targets in one place!

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