[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.