Tacoma Public Utilities may be the only utility in the country that owns and operates a railroad. It all began in June of 1927 when a Tacoma City Charter amendment transferred control of the “Belt Line” (now known as Tacoma Rail) from the City’s General Government to Tacoma Public Utilities.
Some believe that the successful management of two of the city’s largest municipal services, power and water, justified moving the struggling railroad into utility hands.
At the time, the railroad provided passenger service and shuttled people to and from work in the Port of Tacoma. An old joke says the five-cent fare was on the honor system, but no one honored it.
Today, Tacoma Rail moves freight, but no passengers, through the Port of Tacoma. As a public agency, Tacoma Rail can operate at cost or very close to it, making the Port more competitive.
The railroad has benefitted from its public status in the past because it qualified for state grant funding that private railroads could not receive. (A recent rule change, however, allows private railroads to also receive grants.)
Although a majority of its traffic moves in and out of the port, Tacoma Rail also operates on lines that run into south Pierce County and parts of Thurston County. Three of these serve South Tacoma, Quadlock and Olympia. The City of Tacoma’s General Government owns the Mountain Division, but Tacoma Rail operates it.
Tacoma Rail has proven itself as an economic engine for Tacoma and Pierce County, and Tacoma Public Utilities prides itself on being a one-of-a-kind utility that can count a short-line railroad as one of the great services it provides.