More concerns, questions over Train to Mountain future

A recent feasibility study aimed to chart a course for the future of Tacoma Rail’s Train to the Mountain isn’t enough to assuage financial concerns associated with the project, according to a presentation last week to Tacoma City Councilmembers.
The rail line, purchased by the City a decade ago and operated by Tacoma Rail’s Mountain Division, has always been associated with the goal of generating tourism by operating a train from Freighthouse Square in the Dome District to Mount Rainier National Park.
But the Mountain Division has racked up approximately $6.5 million in loans and outstanding debt. Tomorrow, City Council is expected to hear the final reading of an ordinance that would authorize an interest bearing internal note in the amount of $5.9 million to be repaid over 10 years by the Mountain Division Railroad.
Moreover, a feasibility study introduced last week shows the City would have to invest between $11 million and $24 million in track upgrades in order to successfully operate the train.
According to the feasibility study, conducted by David Evans and Associates, Train to the Mountain would be successful under the following conditions:
— One-way trip time between Tacoma and Mount Rainier National Park totals three hours or less;
— Maximum price for round-trip totals $150, and includes on-train programs and meals;
— Shuttling passengers from two train depots outside the park — Elbe and Ashford — to the park entrance at Paradise is unavoidable;
— Track upgrades to Elbe would cost $11 million; track upgrades to Ashford, which is closer to the park entrance, would cost $24 million;
Consultants also recommended Tacoma Rail identify a third-party operator to run the train. They also encouraged officials to pursue federal funding to pay for track upgrades.
During Tuesday’s presentation, several councilmembers expressed concern over the project.
“We need to have a hard look at this soon,” said Councilmember Jake Fey. He added that accruing debt and future investments are money that could be spent on other essential services.
But other councilmembers looked at the rail line as an investment that would pay off in the future.
“The primary focus of the Mountain Division needs to be freight hauling and the economic development that comes out of it,” said Councilmember Tom Stenger. He added that Tacoma Rail’s Tideflats division lost money for years, but today is profitable.
“There will be a day when we have Train to the Mountain,” said Stenger. “But it won’t be tomorrow.”