Freighthouse Square –SounderBruce (Flickr)
Freighthouse Square –SounderBruce (Flickr)

[Update, Friday 10:46am: Freighthouse Square owner Brian Borgelt has responded to recent coverage here and elsewhere with a scathing email that a source shared with STB, reading in part, “the legion of dingbats has attacked en masse, as they always do.” Read the full email here.]

[Update, Thursday 12:03pm: Though the News Tribune didn’t disclose the financial terms under dispute, a source speaking on condition of anonymity disclosed to STB that the assessed value of WSDOT’s portion of Freighthouse Square is $300,000, that WSDOT has offered Borgelt $1.5m, and that Borgelt is demanding $6.1m]

The Tacoma News Tribune broke the news Wednesday night that planned Amtrak service at Tacoma’s Freighthouse Square (FHS) may be in jeopardy. Negotiations with current FHS owner Brian Borgelt have gone badly enough that WSDOT has initiated eminent domain processes and is now publicly looking for alternative locations for Amtrak as a fallback plan.

WSDOT’s Janet Matkin wrote to a Tacoma advisory committee to relay the news. From the News Tribune:

“Negotiations to purchase the identified portion of the building are at an impasse and any further delays that impact the construction process will make it impossible for WSDOT to meet deadlines for building the new station,” Janet Matkin, WSDOT’s rail division communications manager, wrote to advisory committee members.

A new station is necessary because the department beginning in mid-2017 will reroute Amtrak passenger trains from their present waterfront route to a route through South Tacoma, Lakewood and DuPont. The new route will relieve congestion on the tracks along Puget Sound and cut several minutes off Amtrak’s Seattle-Portland schedule.

“Funding for the new station is through a federal grant and the Federal Railroad Administration determined that under this grant, negotiations to acquire the building could not begin until October 2015. The grant also stipulates that all construction for the station must be completed by summer 2017. No alternative funds have been identified to extend the construction beyond this deadline,” the department wrote.

Relocating Amtrak away from the 70s-era Amshack to FHS is of the linchpins of the more than $700m in recession-era stimulus funds, bringing the promise of a fully integrated multimodal facility with Amtrak, Greyhound, Trailways, Pierce Transit, Sound Transit Express, Sounder, Tacoma Link, and possibly Central Link trains to SeaTac and Ballard. But with the tight deadline looking ever more likely to lapse without a satisfactory negotiation, the state is left with only poor options just when Amtrak Cascades most needs a boost. Ridership has fallen slowly but steadily from its record highs in 2012, with Tacoma ridership down 5% and Seattle ridership down 10%. Stagnating service levels, lengthened schedules due to construction, and competition from Bolt Bus have all hurt performance, and 2017 will see better frequency, better reliability, and higher speeds. But losing Tacoma would more than negate any overall ridership gains.

We can hope first and foremost that the impasse between WSDOT and Borgelt can be broken, or failing that, that acquisition via eminent domain will be successful. An unfortunate third option – a temporary or indefinite station located elsewhere – is apparently now being seriously considered. The current station cannot continue to be used beyond 2017, as the grants require successfully introducing two new Seattle-Portland trips, and those trips are contingent on completing the Point Defiance Bypass. So Amtrak trains will pass through FHS regardless, it’s just a matter of whether or not Tacoma’s 120,000 Amtrak passengers (roughly 325 per day) will be able to board there.

Temporary options could include using Puyallup, South Tacoma, or Lakewood as unstaffed stations with no baggage, waiting room, or other services, all of which would fail to adequately serve Tacoma’s core and sever Amtrak passengers from regional transit connections.

Sound Transit wrote us this morning saying they expect no impact on their Tacoma Trestle project, as that project is fully funded by ST2 and will open in 2018. WSDOT requested additional work be included in the scope of the project, including a second platform and a longer current platform to accommodate joint Amtrak/Sounder operations. Sound Transit’s recent Capital Committee meeting approved  a motion funding the trestle construction contract, with Sound Transit expressing discomfort with potential financial exposure should WSDOT-funded reimbursements not materialize,

As discussed previously in the background of the staff report, a portion of the work being performed is under a reimbursement agreement with WSDOT. The reimbursement is dependent on schedule performance and completion of the work prior to the expiration of federal grant funding in October 2017. There is financial risk that work performed and paid by Sound Transit may not be reimbursed due to the expiration of funds. Project staff and WSDOT are diligent in mitigating that risk, but it continues to exist through the completion of the project.

The post has been updated with comment from Sound Transit.

104 Replies to “WSDOT Scrambles to Save Amtrak Service at Tacoma’s Freighthouse Square”

  1. What a disaster.

    How could they have let this process get this far?

    As for the merchants, talk about cutting off your nose to spite your face. Would construction have hurt business? Probably, but the resulting foot traffic from the completed project (including potentially an all day sounder if ST3 passes) could be greater than this site has ever seen.

    Killing this project will hurt Cascades and Sounder service a great deal. It may also significantly harm Tacoma’s long term plans.

    What foolishness. :-/

    1. What sort businesses exist at Freighthouse Square? Are any of them of the type that would get customers from foot traffic?

      1. Its basically a food court. There are also a few small small stores selling other things but last time I went there (admittedly on a weekend) there were hardly any businesses open at all.

      2. Think of Freighthouse Square as the lower level of Pike Place Market with some food places. They’re all fairly dependent on foot traffic as it’s part of a large transit center with some parking and a friggin light rail line at the front door. Any increase in potential customers hanging around (ie not Sounder commuters) would be good for businesses. FHS is cool but really needs some activation.

        As Charles said, there are an odd number of businesses in FHS that are closed during reasonable business hours. It’s something I could never quite fathom.

    2. Oh, by “they” I am referring to WSDOT. The whole Point Defiance bypass project has been poorly managed from day one. This is the second or third time (depending on how you count) in the same project that they have been blindsighted by local opposition.

      The dates keep getting pushed back and now the whole project risks failure. I was not happy to see the head of WSDOT fired in the way she was, but the continued inability of the organization to deliver on projects like this gives me serious doubts about the organization as a whole.

      1. Amtrak Cascades has kinda been second fiddle for quite a while since the Recession gutted their rail department. But they are finally going full-speed installing new crossovers and rail infrastructure between Seattle and Portland. And acquiring new Cascades locomotives!

        While WSDOT may not be a shining beacon, but they are at the mercy of state legislatures and politics so much more than our local agencies. Voters said no to lots of the projects funded by the latest gas tax but by god the politicians and powers in Olympia wanted them. WSDOT just has the unfortunate task of executing politicians whims or being executed by the very same politicians that once supported their projects (see 405 ETLs). We can thank our very own Mayor Ed Murray and Gov Gregoire for being the biggest cheerleaders of the disaster that is “Big Dig of the West” (although SR 99 isn’t even in the league in terms of size and scope as Boston’s Big Dig).

      2. They are currently working on upgrading the tracks with lots of dirt flying, so the project is certainly a go. The real question is what happens if the tracks are ready but the station isn’t?

      3. The real question is what happens if the tracks are ready but the station isn’t?

        Take over an office in Freighthouse Square, and make that the Amtrak ticket office. Take over one of the vacant food court segments, and make that the Amtrak luggage handling department.

        This isn’t King Street Station. The amount of vacant space in Freighthouse Square is maybe twice the size of the current Amtrak Tacoma station. Sure, the new station would be nice for Amtrak, but if WashDOT isn’t able to reach an agreement then just use the space as-is. It would still be a step up from the concrete bunker thing Amtrak has now.

    3. I would imagine that most of the current FHS merchants are more worried about paying next month’s rent and less concerned about 5 years from now. There’s also likely a reason that Starbuck’s, Subway and the other chains haven’t invested in FHS: lack of vision, capital and support from the property owner.

      1. There was a Subway for a little while. The other, independent, sandwich shop on the premises complained that normally chains aren’t allowed at Freight House Square, and then the independent shop went out of business, followed by Subway.

      2. Ever think, Guy, that there’s a food service business plan that doesn’t include terrible coffee and flavorless unhealthy food?

        Or that doesn’t force the owner adjust his “vision” to a proliferation of, your word, “chains”- meaning giant corporate entities who Tacoma needs even less than they need Tacoma?

        I learned to eat Indian food in East Africa 50 years ago, and so know the quality difference to distinguish food from Subway.

        So if this tenant isn’t there in five years, along with uncompensated disruption, it’ll be more due to chain-related presence than absence. Same with me. Pretty sure he’s got at least one more restaurant elsewhere.

        Same for the whole food court. The high-quality knife sharpener will also be missed. And a couple of gift shops selling things literally not seen anywhere else.

        So if Sounder, Amtrak, and Tacoma wants a station where the only food available isn’t in machines and wrapped in plastic best business move is to have every current tenant alive and healthy ’til I tap my ORCA card leaving Train Any Number.

        Otherwise, ST and Amtrak will put a decent meal within time I can wait for lunch.

        Mark Dublin


    4. What does the property owner want? Why are the negotiations failing? Is the owner just demanding more money?

      1. Freight house square has nothing worth visiting right now. Which drags the actionable price down big time. The owner is hallucinating.

  2. I don’t know anything about the details of the negotiations, but Freighthouse Square is currently kind of an economic dead zone. There are a few low-end lunch spots and a rotating roster of other struggling businesses in the building that would all benefit greatly from an improved rail station. Long term, FHS would be much better off with the rail station than without the station.

  3. I watched a guy hold onto his family’s decaying movie theater for years too long, losing money hand over fist, til he was nearly homeless. Turned aside several generous offers that would have preserved the theater and kept him stable. I’m hoping that this is not the same kind of thing, but it does happen.

  4. So what’s the beef with the current ownership? Do they just want more money or is it a matter of the station plans being in conflict with other uses they have planned for the space? The only thing that would be hard to relocate would be Tacoma Link.

    Is it the Puyallup tribe that owns the casino nearby? I bet they would love to have the regional transit center right at their front door; Canadian Amtrak ridership doubles down instantly :=

    1. Tacoma link doesn’t need to relocate. All of the rail tracks are on the other side of FHS. This is all over the placement of a station.

      The local busineses are pushing back over funds to support their businesses during the construction phase.

      1. I was talking about having to extend Tacoma Link if the Freight House Sq location doesn’t work out. It’s the only spike in the ground that ties it to this location. I get the construction mitigation thing. Look what’s happened to businesses on 23rd in Seattle. ST has a history of being generous with mitigation funds. Are they trying to cheap out because these are poor people without high prices suits to haggle for them in court?

        Yes the location will likely be better after the station is built but that doesn’t help owners driven out of business before it opens.

      2. This is WSDOT though. Eminent domain is how you build highways, so why do you expect them to do different here?

      3. Tacoma Link is mostly about Sounder, not Cascades. If the station deal falls apart I assume Sounder would stay where it is, and ST Express too, and the Central Link station would be somewhere outside the square. But if it becomes necessary to move Tacoma Link, and the connection to Sounder is no longer considered necessary, and the 594 and 590 already go to downtown Tacoma, then it raises the issue of how much Tacoma Link wants to go the Dome area at all, and whether it should just be truncated or moved west. The station is out of the way if Tacoma Link is ever extended south to Pacific Avenue.

      1. Actually if WSDOT chooses a different location then who knows? Sounder might bolt first chance it gets.

    1. It is an old railroad freight house, whether there are trains stopping there or not. In fact, it was Freighthouse Square before Sounder started stopping there.

  5. I’m not convinced that this is the ideal place for the station anyway. Sounder and Cascades trains already conflict sometimes. Putting them both at a platform on the single side of the station isn’t going to result in much good.

    The station could be further east, and on top of the Tacoma Link shop building. That could allow access to both sides of the line and possibly two trains boarding at the same time.

    O d block west of Freight House Square is a parking lot. It doesn’t seem like there would be too much trouble putting the station there, and that would be closer to downtown Tacoma (slightly) and maybe better access to some of the north-south bus routes, if the cards are played right.

    1. The project includes a dual-platform layout. There shouldn’t be any Cascades/Sounder conflicts as long as that’s built.

      1. You have to be able to cross the tracks. The line at freight house square is at grade. The line is on a trestle at the Tacoma Link shops, so a station there could more easily access both sides of the line.

  6. The bypass plan was and is stupid.

    I, for one, will take Amtrak less, and cease recommending it. The segment along the water is a large part of why I took Amtrak, and one of the few reasons I recommended it others.

    Vastly degraded aesthetics to make a few minutes better time is an extremely poor trade-off.

    Efficiency is only a small part of living. The journey is often more important than the destination.

    1. A poor tradeoff for you maybe. I compare Amtrak’s 24-hour travel time to San Francisco with Greyhound’s 19-hour travel time.

      1. Do you really think normal humans consider that comparison?

        You think people take Amtrak from Seattle to California are thinking about speed at all?

        The vast majority of folks don’t ride Amtrak for more than 4 or 5 hour stints. The long-haulers are almost certainly ONLY considering the pleasure of the journey. Otherwise they would hop on Alaska or Virgin.

        The huge implementation failure just compounds this massive tragedy, destroying one of the few truly beautiful train rides in America.

      2. You’ve probably got a point with respect to long-distance travelers, biliruben. But what about short-haul travelers between Seattle and Portland? Mightn’t they be more concerned about speed?

      3. For what they’re spending on the “bypass” they could have drilled a parallel tunnel under Point Defiance and removed the bottleneck.

      4. When I took it frequently, it was primarily for business, and as much as I love the section along the water the (eventual) savings of 30 minutes+ when all the various upgrades are complete, as well as having much higher frequencies, are very important.

        I’ve never really understood, however, why the Coast Starlight and any other long-distance train that eventually runs that route can’t still keep the coastal routing. Those trains are far more for tourists who would appreciate the scenery than for people who are traveling simply to get somewhere. No stations are skipped and, assuming they keep the Superliner coaches, the top speed eventually attainable by the Talgo sets won’t be matched by the Starlight anyway.

      5. I used to always take Greyhound to California or Vancouver or Portland because it’s shorter and cheaper than Amtrak, but the past decade I’ve shifted pretty completely to Amtrak, both because of the amenities and scenery, and also because as I get older I can’t sleep in a bus seat or hostel bunk like I used to.

      6. And there can always be something like the Woodinville dinner train on the Tacoma coast for those who want to see the scenery.

    2. Compared to the aesthetics of driving on I-5 or going to the airport?

      Amtrak Cascades is a short-haul service focused on moving people as part of a transportation system, not just a means of enjoying the journey like Amtrak’s distance trains. The water segment is a nice touch but we can’t reasonably say it’s worth a slower, longer, and more unreliable trip so ~12 of the 170 miles look nicer. As a taxpayer and occasional rider, I welcome shaving 30 minutes off the SEA-PDX round trip while making it much more reliable.

      1. It’s at least twice that much coastline as you suggest, and I bet it’s single digit savings each way, when all is said and done.

        Is this really costing 700 million dollars? You really think that’s a good way to invest tax-payer dollars?

        The only real argument is reliability, and I those issues are largely caused outside of the PDX-SEA segment.

      2. The bypass itself is $89m. Most of the money went to track improvements (new sidings, more triple track, etc) further south. The bypass will save less than 10 mins, but reliability will jump to 90%, and the project opens up a host of possibilities for integrating Sounder and Cascades going forward.

      3. It’s a matter of degree.

        The defenders of the bypass repeatedly are:

        1) exaggerating the benefit (it’s going to end up less than 10 minutes savings, not 15),
        2) then exaggerating again by discussing it terms of 2 trips (30 minutes benefit round trip – even if that were true; that on a 8 hour trip! peanuts!)
        3) down-playing the costs (it’s under a hundred million if don’t count X Y and Z)

        That tells me this is a dubious project.

        Sure. If we were cutting the time from 3 and half to 2 hours, then yes. I’m all for it!

        But 8 minutes? Really? To shove the train into the backyards and along highways, so we can mimic like are going through the dying mid-west suburbia in plain states (boy have I taken too many of those trips)?

        Where’s the humanity, the love of beauty and common sense. Tossing away all that beauty for 8 minutes, and throwing all that money at it doesn’t make sense.

        I would almost bet that the public will agree with me, not the lords of transit efficiency. We will see gains in Amtrak ridership disappear, and regress. Mark my words.

        8 minutes.

      4. The Point Defiance Bypass is going to raise on-time performance from a not-good-enough 79.4% to a much better ~88%. Other projects along the line are also designed to raise OTP and remove bottlenecks, to get it above the crucial 90% level.

        It has been *REPEATEDLY* documented that on time performance is BY FAR the most important consideration when people decide whether to take the train.

        Ridership and revenue will probably increase by a very large amount.

        And of course it’s much, much, MUCH cheaper than drilling a tunnel. You can’t drill a tunnel for $89 million.

        The 10 minute time savings is just a bonus.

      5. The only way WSDOT can add the two extra trips is by moving to the Pt Defiance Bypass. No Pt Defiance Bypass, no additional trips. This is the contract with the BNSF.

      6. I think reliability is really important. Driving I-5 without traffic is still faster than the train but people choose the train even if it’s slower expecting that it will be on time, nearly all the time, regardless of I-5 traffic. A train delay will quickly make people regret their decision. “I’d be there already if I drove.”

        I don’t buy the theory that people will stop riding the train because there’s no longer an ocean view for 30 minutes out of a 3 hour ride. Maybe some will but far more people will be attracted to the guarantee that you’ll arrive at your destination on time. Sounder North hasn’t been doing so well despite running along the coast most of the way because of frequent mudslides cancelling trains and disrupting people’s routines.

      7. It’s not the bypass in isolation. It’s the bypass as part of a whole series of incremental improvements that will bring Seattle-Portland travel time down from 3:30 to under three hours. At that point it will be competitive with driving and a more attractive alternative to flying. The totality of the improvements will pave the way for a speed increase from 79 mph to 90 mph, and after that to 110.

      8. Using the bypass allows 2 more frequencies per day.

        I suppose WSDOT could buy more slots from BNSF but that still doesn’t address the frequent conflicts with freight over the single track tunnel.

    3. @biliruben,

      Transportation needs to be about utility and not about the view.

      We aren’t talking about building a carnival ride here, we are talking about transportation. The routing and supporting infrastructure should be judged on how well they support transportation needs and not on what sort of view they provide out the window.

      If you want a good view, go ride the Great Wheel in Seattle. It has a much better view than even from the current Cascades routing. The transportation utility is exactly zero, but if all you care about is the view then it will be perfect for you. Go for it.

    4. If it’s more important for Amtrak to provide slow scenic journeys mared by single-track induced unreliability over reliable rapid transportation, then let’s kill Amtrak and be done with it. It’s not worth taxpayer subsidies and can be better handled by Rocky-Mountaineer type corporations who don’t need to go cap-in-hand to state governments every year.

      But since Amtrak service has actual transportation goals, then the focus on what enables trains to go faster and serve more people on a tighter schedule is entirely justified.

      1. What’s the competitive advantage of Amtrak though? It’s not speed, it’s not price. It’s comfort and the rare opportunity to travel through an American landscape outside a highway corridor that is blighted by every town sprawl. Can anyone who reads this blog really argue that focusing on automobiles have left us with ugly, soul-crushing environments? Is that not one of the greatest arguments for transit, that it requires less space for concrete and asphalt leaves more space for human things and natural things?

        If there were a similiarly-priced project to increase reliability along the Pt. Defiance section, that would definately been the better investment.

      2. They did originally consider drilling more tunnels, doing more cut and fill, and double-tracking Pt. Defiance, but it turns out that’s a terrible idea. It costs multibillions, has all kinds of wetlands and coastal construction environmental issues, the passenger trains still get caught in the Port of Tacoma traffic, and BNSF gets most of the benefit. And it’s still slow.

        Note that trying to double-track the Pt. Defiance route has *real* environmental issues. The Bypass route only has fake environmental issues invented by jackass NIMBYs. Big difference.

      3. Double tracking the Point Defiance tunnel shouldn’t be too big a deal. The only reason why it is single tracked today is to fit double stack containers under the center. If the BNSF really needed the capacity, it would be undercut and converted to double track by now. It’s a fairly common process for converting tunnels and bridges to work with stack trains.

      4. What’s the competitive advantage of Amtrak though? It’s not speed, it’s not price

        That’s entirely dependent on what you are trying to do. A co-worker took Amtraj back from the Los Angeles area as it was cheaper than he was able to find airline tickets.

        Amtrak has lower kids prices. I didn’t know how big an advantage that was until I talked to a young woman and her son a few months ago. She said it was far cheaper to take Amtrak to Seattle than BoltBus due to the kids prices.

        It would be great to have the water level line stay in passenger service, but there aren’t any good things to do to increase the speed of this line. It’s not like there are miles of 10 mph track someplace that obviously need to be replaced. Other than the mess in north Portland and the ponderous approach to King Street Station, this is the slowest section of the line right now. It may only cut six minutes right now, but its reasonably flat and mostly quite straight. Significant parts are right next to I-5 and Fort Lewis, and I really see no reason why a good chunk couldn’t be maintained to 110 mph standards.

        Why not? Because Amtrak is louder than artillery practice or something? It only has a few crossings, and currently all sections in Amtrak service legal for 110 mph service have a few crossings anyway. It’s nearly completely straight, which is what you really need for 110. The half hour bus slog from DuPont to Tacoma could become an 8 minute breeze.

        Sadly, the legislature won’t put that sort of money into this line just yet. They’ll plop a billion or so into adding a lane each direction through Fort Lewis for not a whole lot of improvement, but nothing that will make the bypass line a real kick butt alternative to driving, at least not yet.

      5. @Dardenells,

        Actually, the competitive advantage of Amtrak varies by route. On certain long distance routes Amtraks advantage may well be the view and leisurely pace of travel, but that is certainly not the case with this segment

        The advantage of this segment is the reliable commute and the ability to avoid a white knuckle congestion jammed drive. Trip time is tied to reliability and is nearly competitive already.

        So the bypass actually does increase Amtrak’s competitive advantage on this route. It improves reliability to over 90%, reduces trip time, and still provides a calm experience outside of traffic jams.

      6. It’s not price?

        If you talk to an accountant, your drive down to Portland costs you at least $80.

        Highest Amtrak ticket price is $63… Hell, you could add the $19 Business class surcharge and be right in the same price range as driving.

        Oh yeah, we’re not talking about what the cost of driving is…
        we’re rationalizing the decision, got it. …
        In that case… Gas is cheap. That’s all you need to worry about.

      7. One November I had a sudden opportunity to go to Chicago that weekend and visit a friend who was between navy assignments. Last-minute flights were five or six hundred dollars. I got an Amtrak ticket for maybe $260 round trip leaving the next day.

      8. @Dardanelles While the Coast Starlight is about scenery and a slow pace, Cascades is a regional high speed train and is about speed and price- it’s cheaper then driving and competitive with the bus.

      9. The Coast Starlight is not “about” a slow pace; that’s just the defective state it’s in. When Metro had long milk-run routes like the 226 that went from Seattle to Redmond meandering through three stops on Mercer Island and several in Enatai, or the 210 that went from Seattle to North Bend meandering along Newport Way, that was a bug not a feature, and they were replaced by trunk expresses (550, 554, 545) and shorter local routes. The Coast Starlight is like the old days of Metro. The answer is not to celebrate it and keep it in amber, but to speed it up. If people want to go on “excursions”, they can take special excursion trains running a few days a week, not hold back people who just want regular daily transportation. We don’t limit Metro to slow scenic routes because some people like the scenery. And as I said before, the Tacoma coast would be the perfect place for a short-distance dinner train.

      10. While I completely agree that speed and reliability should be improved, it is simply a matter of degree, a few percentage point of reliability and a few minutes of speed isn’t enough of an improvement to justify either the money or loss of the waterfront route.

        As a consequence, tis whole bypass plan is a complete fail.

        Keep it on the water until you can promise 110mph inland. The minuscule improvements for huge costs, both monetary and otherwise, just don’t pass the cost-benefit smell-test.

      11. You have to many many improvements like these for high speed rail to work- all the little projects add up to something bigger then the sum of their parts. And reliability is very important to the travelers that Cascades is targeting- they can be sensitive to even a small drop in reliability, and like increases in reliability. And even a small increase in reliability is enough to tilt a lot of people over to taking the train.

      12. The problem with the short distance dinner train idea is that it will never be allowed on BNSF. Never. Ever. Amtrak is there by government fiat. The deal in 1971 was, “We’ll take this money-losing service off your hands, BUT you must allow us to run as many trains on any existing route as we deem reasonable.

        Fortunately for the railroads, long-distance trains haven’t captured much ridership so they don’t slow down the freight trains. But BNSF is not going to take the risk of killing 30 people eating a pleasant dinner rolling down the Narrows coast.

        It’s a small risk but it does exist.

      13. Nathaniel, where do they need “more cut and fill”. The entire length of the line from Tacoma Yard to North Vancouver Junction is two main track — three in places — with the sole exception of the mile-plus between the east portal of the short tunnel and the west portal of the main Point Defiance tunnel. Drill a new bore and the problem would be solved.

        There is no need for other construction. There’s actually a third track siding underneath the Tacoma Narrows Bridge.

        Glenn, the west portal does not look look a centered two track tunnel. The east portal of the short tunnel does, but the open track between them shows no signs of having had a couplet next to it. It looks like it’s always been single track.

        However, there’s plenty of room in daylighted section for another track.

      14. Mike,

        Yes, the Coast Starlight IS about going slowly. It has to cross theSiskiyou’s! The route it takes using Willamette Pass is orders of magnitude superior to the twisting nightmare across Siskiyou Summit followed by a plunge to 1800 feet at Klamath River crossing and climb back to 3800 for Mt. Shasta. But even though the “Shasta Route” is far better than the original one, it still takes a long time to traverse it, because it has MANY curves down through the Sacramento River Canyon. That 60 miles rarely sees a tangent, except on bridges.

        But it is beautiful twelve months out of the year. It’s sad that Amtrak crosses the spectacular part largely at night southbound, but that’s what arriving in San Francisco at a decent hour requires. And then of course people get to see the California Coast north of Santa Barbara in daylight. A true treat.

        The Coast Starlight is a fantastic rail experience and the Narrows Coast is a part of the whole package. It’s sad to lose it.

      15. The problem with the short distance dinner train idea is that it will never be allowed on BNSF. Never. Ever. Amtrak is there by government fiat.

        Depends on how it is done.

        If it operates as one of Amtrak’s trains then it happens under the Amtrak insurance policy, and in the past BNSF has been OK with that. When the steam locomotives in Portland take a train out on the BNSF main line, they appear on the timetable as Amtrak extra service. It’s not exceptionally easy to do as all the passenger equipment has to pass Amtrak mechanical inspections just as if it i were privately owned passenger cars being coupled into an Amtrak passenger train. However, it is possible to do it this way.

        Glenn, the west portal does not look look a centered two track tunnel. The east portal of the short tunnel does, but the open track between them shows no signs of having had a couplet next to it. It looks like it’s always been single track.

        Look carefully when you go through the tunnel next. You can really see how much space the long tunnel has in it. It really is a two track tunnel with the main line cut back to a single track.

        Apparently there was a short single track section in order to keep the high-wide cars from hitting some obstacle. There’s a whole conversation about it here:,2494709
        I’m fairly certain the poster that goes by TAW is a retired consultant that worked as an NP and later BN dispatcher before going into private transportation consulting work for the State of Washington.

        a fantastic rail experience and the Narrows Coast is a part of the whole package. It’s sad to lose it.

        My hope is that in the near future there would be passenger service over that part of the line as well as the bypass line. The whole peninsula, except for Point Defiance Park itself, is covered in housing and many of them are areas not especially well served by existing transit. Unfortunately, that gets back into not having a good station location in downtown Tacoma as the Freight House Square station is separate from the Point Defiance line.

    5. The bypass is for Cascades- AKA regional express trains designed for businesspeople and travellers who need to get to places like Portland and Vancouver that are too near to fly to. They are concerned about speed, reliability, and frequency, not scenery. They are the vast majority of travelers and this will seriously help high speed rail in the Pacific Northwest. We can always route the Coast Starlight over Point Defiance instead if you’re concerned about scenery on that route.

    6. The views along Pt Defiance, and Tacoma narrows from the tracks are nothing less than stunning. Amtrak is a story all unto itself, of an employee-union where the tail wags the dog. So much public money has been invested in the Pt Defiance bypass tracks, that really, all the track traffic (that means the cargo trains) should traverse the by-pass.

      The reason the tracks that were first laid along 5 miles of some of the most prime waterfront there ever was, is the repeating age old issue to the PAC-NW of lots of steep hills, thanks to the last ice age glaciers. The by-pass now takes on one of those extreme hills with a 6% grade. 6% is really very hard for a train uphill. Even the passenger trains, that are way shorter, and lighter than cargo trains, have sand drop devices, that drop, yes “sand” on the track, at each up hill attempt.

      The smart thing in the recent past, would have been to spend a little more, and get that grade of the bypass reduced to 4%, and thus ALL the rail traffic would by pass Pt Defiance. Last time I checked, smelly oil rail cars, and dusty coal rail cars, did not give a crud, about the incredible view.

      The whole Pt Defiance 5 miles, could have become a world class park, attracting many tourists. Boat trips like argosy would operate from it, or too such a park also. Not to mention that some of the property could be sold for condo buildings and pay for the whole project. So…. why did that not happen?

      The limited power of “Eminent Domain”, as applied in the usa. versus corporate donations to politicians and the collusion of bar association, for whatever is a theft of the common good. When Pt Defiance tracks were laid.. (guessing 1890-ish), the steep bank waterfront land was close to worthless), yet still , some residence were tossed off, in favor of the rail-tracks for a “private corporation” . That made sense then, and it makes sense now to take it back, now.

      A well known, noisy politician is quite correct when he says its time to expand the use of “eminent domain”. The economic positives for Tacoma would be gigantic, of such a world class park. Perhaps even leave the rails, as embedded track (the track, is in the pavement, so people can walk over it, or drive over it, like street car track).

  7. What a sad situation for Tacoma… hope this gets straightened out before their next airshow. I took Amtrak from their 4 July 2012 one (for what it’s worth). Tacoma needs a new station closer to the city center.

      1. +1. If we were starting over we’d reclaim Union Station as the proper Tacoma station. Since we run push-pull trains anyway, a simple reversing motion and connecting trackage would allow the trains to serve Downtown Tacoma before continuing to Portland, as is done in places all over the world (Bradford Interchange in the UK comes to mind.) But alas, we never built the connecting trackage, and now it’s another underused palace. :/

      2. never built the connecting trackage

        Rebuilt the connecting trackage. Trains from Portland used to enter Tacoma just fine over the old main line (the line that is now being rebuilt). The Point Defiance line that is currently the main line didn’t exist until around 1905 or so, and didn’t open all the way through until about 1914.

        The old main going south ran through what is now the UW Tacoma campus, and you can still see evidence of the old connection if you look towards the remains of Crescent Yard.

        The turn around time wouldn’t be too fast here because of the need to do air brake tests and a few other things you need before changing driving ends (FRA regs are different than UK) but it shouldn’t be too bad – after all, Sounder turns around pretty quickly when it needs to.

        What really screwed everything up was building the freeway right through the middle of the station trackage. The connection from the old main to the new main through what was once the station grounds stayed there, but the vital part of having a station became impossible once 705 took out the statin platform area. I don’t know that the platforms could ever be rebuilt in a way that would really work for trains from any direction with the freeway where it is. It didn’t leave any room for any yard throat switches or a lot of other vital pieces.

      3. Yeah, the only way to return trains to Tacoma Union Station would be a complete demolition of I-705. Which is honestly a good idea anyway, but probably the state is not yet ready to do it.

        By the way, there’s a similar problem in Syracuse NY which prevents returning to any of the downtown stations. Freeways destroyed passenger rail in more ways than one: often they *literally* paved over the right-of-way. It was madness, but then they were all inhaling the fumes from leaded gasoline, so maybe it actually was madness.

      4. Pete, I doubt I’m the only one who would like to see many more Federal courthouses turned back into passenger stations if they already were. Same for prisons, whatever they can be turned back into.

        The life-size bronze statue in front of the door looks a lot more like a station passenger than either a judge or a Federal defendant.

        Maybe local Tacoma “dubious business without a license fine”. How does the Paul Simon song go: “One step ahead of the shoe-shine, two steps over the County line” I know! ORCA violation for illegal King to Pierce.

        But what a great red-brick station complex. History museum. Anthem Cafe. Bridge and elevator to glass museum. Too bad we can’t use tracks anymore.Well, six minute LINK ride to FHS. Like real purpose of the streetcar right now. Elevator-ride, or moving walkway.


      5. IIRC the Pt. Defiance bypass route was never mainline. It was about accessing the NP shops (now demolished), Nalley Valley industry, Ft. Lewis, and a couple of branch lines. AFAIK the water route has been the primary mainline since it was built.

      6. The northern part of the line, from around Old Town Tacoma to Lakeview, was part of the Northern Pacific main line that connected Puget Sound to Kalama. At that time, there were no all-rail connections between Puget Sound and the outside world, so stuff came via the Northern Pacific to the Columbia River, down the Columbia River via Oregon – Washington Railroad & Navigation Company steamers + railroad connections to Kalama, and then north to Puget Sound on this isolated section of the NP.

        This old main line of the 1870s was Tacoma (today Old Town Tacoma) – Lakeview (sort of south of Lakewood) – Yelm – Tenino – Centralia – Kalama.

        This Library of Congress map shows things as they would have been around the time of the completion of the line over the Cascades:
        (you have to zoom in a bit to get any detail)
        NOTE that the line south of Kalama is not accurate for that era. Until the new bridge was built in 1904 at Portland, NP trains crossed the Columbia at Kalama by ferry. It’s kind of strange because the map shows the NP line going all the way into Portland on the Washington side, but it doesn’t show the NP line to Astoria on the Oregon side of the river, which was completed much earlier and formed part of that route to Puget Sound until 1904.

        I don’t know when the Lakeview to Nisqually Junction section through DuPont was built. It was definitely part of the Northern Pacific branch through Olympia to Aberdeen sometime around 1900, as shown on the Library of Congress map of the Northern Pacific (you have to zoom in quite a bit):

        So, at the very least, the northern portion of the line was the main line until 1914, when the Point Defiance line was completed. I’ve been told by those that have long since passed away that they had ridden passenger trains in the 1960s that were diverted to the “old main line” route through Lakeview when a derailment and heavy line damage happened on the Point Defiance line.

  8. I don’t why Amtrak would have to use Puyallup, South Tacoma, or Lakewood… they could run Tacoma as an unstaffed station with no baggage, waiting room, or other services.

    There’s already a platform… and Sound Transit has a small area where an Amtrak TVM could possibly be installed.

    1. I assume even that would have to be negotiated with the property owner with compensation. I admit I don’t know what ST’s current arrangement with the owner is.

      1. I’m not sure either but it looks to me like the building owner *only owns the building* and the land under it, not the platform or the land under it.

        The track and platform appear to be owned by Sound Transit (formerly by Tacoma Rail, formerly by the Milwaukee Road). I don’t know exactly where the property line is (and when railroads are involved, the property lines are often *not* up to date in county records, astonishingly). But it looks like they may be able to go ahead and lengthen the platform without entering his property. They can certainly build a south-side platform without entering his property.

      2. I’ve been doing a little digging here. Freighthouse Square was of course owned, along with the railroad line, by the Milwaukee Road.

        During the Milwaukee Road bankruptcy, the railroad line was sold to Weyerhaeuser. I do not know if they bought the freighthouse; this might have been the point when the property was divided.

        Then in 1995 Weyerhaeuser sold the line to Tacoma Rail, which operated it as the Mountain Division.

        This was the status when Sounder started operating in 2003. I don’t know whether Sounder changed the property lines to build their platform, or what deal they cut with the building owner.

        The portion of the line running past the station was then sold to Sound Transit in 2014 (the rest of the line remains the Tacoma Rail Mountain Division).

        The only maps I’ve been able to find on line regarding the sale are quite vague on the exact width of the Tacoma Rail property as versus the Freighthouse Square property. Zillow thinks the property line runs through the *middle* of the platform, but I don’t trust their map to that level of detail. You’d need a property survey map to know where the property line actually is.

    2. As a temporary situation, I don’t see the problem with shifting to South Tacoma or Puyallup, since the current Am-shack is not well-connected to transit, not located adjacent to any destination, and not pedestrian friendly. A short-term station in South Tacoma would basically be status-quo for a few more years, although in a different neighborhood – the majority of riders currently need to drive to the station or get a taxi, and a small but different handful of riders could take a different low-frequency slow local bus route to get there. Shift it back to its rightful location at FHS after they get their ROW acquisition via eminent domain.

      1. Engineer,

        When you say the “current Am-shack” are you talking about the station in Tacoma? It’s only five blocks from the Tacoma Dome transit station. I know, I walked it myself to save the fourteen dollars extra for riding into Seattle once.

    3. See my comment below. Point Defiance Bypass will be constructed; the train will be rerouted; the new platforms will be built; the train will stop at Freighthouse Square.

      If they can’t condemn the building in time, they may just have an unstaffed “bare platform” stop like Tukwila or Stanwood.

      I panicked too at first, but it’s not nearly as bad as it initially sounded.

  9. This is yet another example of the WSDOT bureaucracy mucking things up. I’ve worked on many WSDOT-related projects, directly for WSDOT, for a smaller municipality on a state highway, and for local agencies with WSDOT-administered grants. I see a few major problems here:
    1. The owner is sick of working with an agency that doesn’t know how to effectively communicate and moves at a snail’s pace.
    2. The owner is sick of working with individuals who follow books full of rules without explaining to him what those rules are or why they are in place. He just sees a bunch of inept individuals pulling stuff out of their hats.
    3. The project was not organized properly. A project that requires property acquisition and is on the receiving end of funds usually takes a long time. Did they seriously expect an owner to simply negotiate in good faith when he has something they need??? How naive! They needed to budget time to condemn the property, period. The owner has WSDOT where he wants them.
    4. Because of the “WSDOT Way of Doing Things” the most qualified engineers were intentionally or unintentionally excluded from the process. If they insisted on a design in Microstation (a niche WSDOT standard software) instead of AutoCAD (the industry standard software), they narrowed their possible team members by at least half. Add onto that people like myself who have literally never had a WSDOT project go well (one time, they pulled the rug out from under my firm and stole a project away after a contract had been signed).

    I’m a Democrat and feel that the Senate last week may have been out-of-line in their firing of the transportation secretary. Perhaps she should have been fired after negotiating with Senate Democrats and the Governor. Senate Republicans could have won a lot of brownie points with voters by negotiating in good faith, being transparent about the situation, and being a bit more thorough in investigating WSDOT before their big surprise. That being said, there is serious dysfunction in this agency. Look at my anecdotal experience. Look at Bertha. How about how the toll lanes (SR16, I-405, SR520, SR167)? And why is there no transit connection to Tacoma Dome from I-5 on the Puyallup River Bridge project? When they solicit public comment, they respond by thanking you for the comments they agree with and dismissing the comments that don’t fit their “plan” (this happened to me when I suggested capacity for rail on the SR 520 Bridge back in early 2005 and again recently on a much smaller project). This is just one more example.

    Maybe WSDOT should contract out its Amtrak Cascades program to Sound Transit. ST knows how to run things smoothly. We can let our freeways continue to be mismanaged while ST properly manages the mass-transit.

      1. He’s talking about non-Amtrak bids for Amtrak Cascades, and WSDOT has put out a request for bids for that.

        The thing is that changing the operator to someone other than Amtrak isn’t going to solve any of the issues mentioned, as far as I can see. in fact, it may actually increase costs because Amtrak has an incremental cost agreement with BNSF (meaning Amtrak only pays the incremental costs for the train on BNSF, not the full price as it if were a freight train that Sounder has to pay). It dates from when railroad freight traffic was in severe decline in the late 1960s and early 1970s, and the railroads were desperate for reliable income.

      2. Right, Glenn.

        I was answering to the comment :
        “Maybe WSDOT should contract out its Amtrak Cascades program to Sound Transit. ST knows how to run things smoothly.”

      3. My comment regarding contracting out Amtrak Cascades to ST goes way beyond the operator of the trains. Despite any markup ST might have to manage the project, I genuinely believe that WSDOT should also contract out its Cascades-related construction projects. WSDOT has repeatedly demonstrated that it cannot effectively manage construction (of any type), whereas ST has repeatedly shown that it manages rail construction quite well. Having a team like the one at ST is worth whatever markup they may charge and will pay for itself in the savings of not having delays, rework, and “extras” on projects.

  10. From reputable source, WSDOT was willing to give Freighthouse Square owner 1.5 million, owner Brian Borglet demands 6.1 million. He bought the entire building and parking lot for 2.4 million who is being unreasonable?

    1. Thanks! I got independent (though still anonymous) verification of this, and updated the post accordingly.

  11. biliruben, I’m with you about passengers not losing the shoreline and the Narrows Bridge. Tempted to suggest a DMU between Tacoma and Olympia several times a day. But doubt BN train control would agree. If I were them, I wouldn’t.

    But to keep that scenery in the mainline transportation picture: flickr:

    Helsinki Finland to Tallinn Estonia. Fast hydrofoil, looks something like a floating DMU doesn’t it? Tacoma LINK to History Museum, existing footbridge to existing elevator, landing in the new development along the river.

    Tacoma-Steilacoom-Port of Olympia. When increased train service starts, Intercity Transit should have an express bus meet every train. Twenty minute max ride downtown. This level of high speed water travel needs investigating. Like for every north-south thing that doesn’t use I-5, could be worth a lot.

    Freighthouse. Have a feeling that it’s not the small businesses that are holding up the negotiations. Can’t blame the property owner for driving the hardest bargain he can. Knows how bad we want that station. And the longer he holds out, the better for him. But doubt there’s much in it for him to lose the deal.

    But, frequently using Freighthouse either for a transit-transfer to or from Olympia, or a parking space in the clean, lighted, and well-patrolled garage….there’s a really good Indian food-court place. Rest of the food-court much better than average too.

    Also some interesting shops down the hall who I think both deserve and want to be kept, but probably can’t afford to move anywhere else. Win-win would be to relocate them during construction and bring them back to stay, at rent they can afford. To keep the new station special, keep it Tacoma, and counterbalance atmosphere of Starbucks.


    1. Mark, double standard much? So you say that #1, you can’t blame the owner for bargaining their way to as a high a price as possible (on the public dime no less), but #2 you want the local businesses to be brought back at a much more activated location at a rent they can afford (basically subsidized).

      No. You only get it one way – either capitalist or socialist, but not a combination of both that suits you best.

      Capitalist: owner gets their larger than reasonable price (the segment WSDOT is getting is worth LESS than what they are offering already), and businesses deal with it like everyone else in a capitalist system. Maybe half of them close. So what? What relation does this have to transit? Zilch! When the new station is ready this will be a better location and new businesses will come into place. Visitors couldn’t care less if some shabby old business survived some minor 1-year construction or not.

      Socialist: owner pays what is reasonable for what they are providing, which is LESS than the $1.5m WSDOT is offering, especially as this is a public, not a private project. Owner still wins tremendously as they can charge much higher rents when the new station is ready. However, in still socialist terms, owner is forced to provide a number of below-market-rate businesses leases to keep the traditional established businesses there. Then, some more subsidies are provided to keep the businesses afloat during construction and right thereafter.

      I am not saying either one is better, but what you suggest doesn’t make sense. I believe in this state, people would lean towards the latter.

      1. Underneath every ideology- especially in Communist countries that alway were, and still are bandits in both war and commerce-bargaining is always pretty much the same. Here, right now it’s not in either side’s interest to “blink” first. But neither is it to kill the deal.

        Same in spades for subsidies. Indian restaurants, waffle-makers, knife-sharpeners, curio shops, self-destroyed banks whose CEO’s deserve to be in the Gulag. Boeing. Not charity to hang onto beneficial current businesses, anymore than to keep the Chihuly’s- maybe bad example- at the Courthouse if we turned it back into a station.

        And as per much else in these pages: In the present political climate, is it a good idea to adjust all one’s thinking to the leanings of people whose elected representatives just pushed over and broke our State government?

        Debate still raging, however, about whether it would have been good or bad if a Chihuly glass artifact was in the way.


  12. Additional information from WSDOT (public source):

    “Should we not be able to reach resolution on Freighthouse Square, we are actively investigating options such as additional funding to supplement the time-constrained federal funding, an unstaffed stop at the platform in Tacoma, or busing passengers from the existing station to the new platform. However, most of these are not long-term solutions and do not meet the future needs of Amtrak Cascades passengers and the community, so our main goal is to resolve the negotiations if possible.”

    (From )

    So, they are going to move to the Tacoma Dome/Freighthouse Square station no matter what. Even if there isn’t actually a station building. Worst case scenario is that it’s unstaffed for a while.

  13. FWIW I had to drive to a field site South of Olympia today and noticed the Pt. Defiance bypass is actively being worked on in the Dupont/Ft. Lewis area with lots of conduit being buried and some track laying equipment present.

  14. 6.5 million my Aunt Fanny. Declare imminent domain, condem the thing, and start over. Keep the west facade for the history types, and call it all good.

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