Two years after the disastrous Point Defiance Bypass Amtrak crash, a new report makes clear Sound Transit should not have been trusted to lead this unique multiagency project.
Upon the report’s release, Sound Transit leadership removed the agency’s top safety officer and announced a restructuring. A thorough upgrade of Sound Transit processes must follow, to fulfill the promise of successful modern-transit infrastructure.
The $181 million Point Defiance Bypass project aimed to deliver faster, more reliable passenger rail service between Seattle and Portland. Instead, the December 2017 derailment killed three people and injured dozens.
In the new investigative report, an Oregon consultant found a series of profound internal Sound Transit failures, clarifying further the lapses the National Transportation Safety Board outlined in May.
Some errors are structural: Sound Transit, which owned the new rail line, somehow believed the Washington State Department of Transportation would oversee Amtrak’s safety provisions. That responsibility was Sound Transit’s. Sound Transit also failed to prepare a safety plan for the bypass, despite recognizing its treacherous curve.
Other errors are found in details: Sound Transit CEO Peter Rogoff didn’t bother to put his signature on the final certification of the new rail connection, as was required.
And some can fairly be called stupefying: Sound Transit’s risk evaluation downplayed derailment as a potential hazard. The investigators wrote that Sound Transit reduced derailment “from an ‘Unacceptable’ event to an ‘Undesirable’ event. … This approach misstates the acceptable risk.”
Derailment on the rail line’s very first trip proved catastrophic because of this ruinous mismanagement by an agency whose operations are a massive regional concern. Tens of thousands of passengers rely on Sound Transit’s Link light rail and Sounder commuter trains to roll on time each day. A three-county taxpaying region entrusted the agency to spend billions of tax dollars on system expansion to create a safe, modern transportation network.
The voters’ decisive embrace of Initiative 976 to cut taxes that provide some of Sound Transit’s revenue shows the agency should be acutely sensitive to public perception while its biggest projects remain years from opening. Sponsor Tim Eyman promoted the initiative by targeting the transit agency’s car-tab fee schedule, which inflated the value of newer vehicles for tax-calculation purposes.
Sound Transit must repair its lost public trust. This means following through on the structural safety reforms Rogoff promised in a memo, and engaging meaningfully with public concerns before they fester. The I-976 election showed voters feel the tax sacrifices of growing Sound Transit with every car-tab renewal.
Two agency board members from Pierce County, University Place Mayor Kent Keel and county Executive Bruce Dammeier, even objected to November’s 1% hike to Sound Transit’s property-tax collections. This vote, which passed 14-2, actually cut the agency’s small per-dollar property tax rate — for the third year in a row — so rising property values wouldn’t swell revenues beyond the 1% cap. But the objections echoed discontent shown in the I-976 vote about the Sound Transit tax investment and its returns so far.
Sound Transit urgently needs to win back public faith through responsive stewardship. Effective transit remains too vital to Puget Sound’s future to tolerate such a careless handling of Point Defiance Bypass.