Lakewood sues state over reroute of Amtrak passenger trains

The City of Lakewood has sued the state to stop the proposed rerouting of Amtrak passenger trains through the community in its tracks.

The city contends that the state Department of Transportation’s environmental review of the project glossed over traffic and neighborhood effects on Lakewood and, specifically, its isolated Tillicum neighborhood, by using incorrect or insufficient information.

The city filed the lawsuit Wednesday in Pierce County Superior Court.

The three-year environmental review, approved by federal officials March 1, concluded that moving Amtrak trains from the waterfront route around Point Defiance to an inland route passing through DuPont, Lakewood and South Tacoma would not significantly harm the environment. The trains would not stop in Lakewood.

The decision was crucial because it frees the state to seek reimbursement of $89 million in federal stimulus dollars budgeted for the project to complete its design and construction. Construction is scheduled to begin in 2015 with the first trains running on the new route two years later, officials estimate.

The city’s lawsuit concluded the Transportation Department violated state statutes that required the review by reaching a decision “which was not based on sufficient or adequate information with respect to a number of impacts.”

The lawsuit seeks a court order voiding the state’s decision, slamming the brakes on a project that had been gaining momentum in the last month after years of delay.

Transportation Department spokeswoman Melanie Coon said the agency had received notice of the lawsuit and was reviewing it in concert with the Federal Railroad Administration and the state Attorney General’s Office. She had no other immediate comments.

Rerouting passenger trains away from the Puget Sound waterfront would decrease travel times through the Nisqually-Tacoma corridor by up to 10 minutes, improve rail safety and allow two more trains to run between Portland and Seattle each day, Transportation Department officials have said.

The project also would make safety improvements to several at-grade crossings in DuPont and Lakewood and on Joint Base Lewis-McChord. They include stationary horns and other warning devices, gates, traffic signals and sidewalks.

But Lakewood long has maintained that more is needed to safeguard the public from trains traveling up to 79 miles per hour through the community.

In January 2010, the City Council passed a resolution opposing the project and asked the Transportation Department to conduct an in-depth review to include grade separation between vehicles and trains. Amtrak trains would pass through seven at-grade rail crossings in Lakewood.

State officials have said constructing overpasses is too costly at this time. But the lawsuit points out that the proposed cross-base highway, which would connect Interstate 5 and state Route 7, envisioned such a project for North Thorne Lane, one of the at-grade rail crossings.

The lawsuit also identifies other conclusions the city argued are “factually incorrect” and “makes clear that this (the environmental review) was merely a bureaucratic exercise.” They include that the Point Defiance Bypass would not alter neighborhoods, lower property values or cause significant traffic delays at some intersections.

The lawsuit suggests the Tillicum neighborhood, where the city has made inroads of late to bolster its housing stock and revitalize its business corridor, has the most to lose from the project. The only ways to get and out of the neighborhood are from two I-5 exits, which would closed temporarily during the day to allow trains to pass.

“The Tillicum neighborhood, which proudly serves the needs of our military service members and is home to one of the most socio-economically diverse populations in the state, will become even more isolated from the rest of the city because of this project,” city spokesman Jeff Brewster said.

Finally, the lawsuit charges that the Transportation Department didn’t account for Lakewood’s policies for rail traffic running through its community during the environmental review.

Christian Hill: 253-274-7390