Uphill Trek: Train to the Mountain plan revisited

A joint study between the City of Tacoma, Tacoma Rail, and the National Park Service could provide insight into the feasibility of a train carrying visitors from Tacoma to Mt. Rainier National Park, according to a presentation yesterday during the City’s Economic Development Committee meeting.

The $690,275 study is funded by the Department of the Interior, overseen by Tacoma Rail, and designed to look at a wide range of issues that would determine whether the plan is worth pursuing.

Among the issues: track upgrades to allow the train to move faster; size of the train needed to carry passengers; park accessibility, including an intermodal station for passengers entering and leaving the park; the economic benefit to Tacoma; and the impact of additional visitors on overall park operations.

“The park folks are cooperative, but they are skeptical of how this will work,” said Tacoma Public Utilities Director Mark Crisson. “With all the budget pressures on the National Park Service, if you create a terminus that has to be constructed and operated, there’s a significant impact on the park, and they’re concerned about that.”

Indeed, the so-called “train to the mountain” has faced many hurdles since it was first introduced more than 15 years ago — when a group of City and County leaders chartered a celebratory round-trip journey via train and bus to Ellensburg, Yakima, and back to Tacoma to kick-off the idea.

One hurdle: the two-hour train ride would terminate outside the park; another 32-mile bus trip would conclude the trip, dropping passengers off at Paradise. A long trip for a day at the park.

Another hurdle: civic support for the idea has waned; feasibility studies have been done before, and the idea has been championed off and on — always with few tangible results.

During Tuesday’s meeting, however, Tacoma Rail Marketing Director Ron Ernst was optimistic about exploring the economic impact on the city. “If we had this, what would it look like in terms of the economic benefit?” Ernst wondered.

According to TPU Director Crisson, exploring this plan has resulted in “a couple million dollars in debt” — an aspect that concerned Councilmember Jake Fey.

“I don’t want to get ourselves deeper into debt with this,” said Fey.

Councilmember Bill Evans was concerned about the environmental impact of running a train between Tacoma and the park. “There could be a tremendous amount of pollution,” said Evans.

The feasibility study will continue through June 2007.

“I’m hoping this will give us the answer of whether to go forward or abandon the idea,” said Councilmember Fey.