Tom Banse

(Washington State Standard) The Federal Railroad Administration largely passed over the Northwest while doling out more than $8 billion to improve passenger rail service across the nation.

Advocates who envision a 250-mph bullet train zipping between Portland, Oregon and Vancouver, Canada, were looking forward to celebrating a nearly $200 million grant award. Instead, the Washington and Oregon transportation departments on Friday came away with a couple of rail development grants of $500,000.

Boosters of the “ultra-high speed” passenger train insisted the dream of one-hour trips from Vancouver to Seattle or Seattle to Portland is still positioned to get federal support down the line and that one of the smaller grants was a positive sign. Skeptics of the costly project breathed a sigh of relief and urged a refocused effort to upgrade existing Amtrak Cascades service between Vancouver and Eugene, Oregon.

“They didn’t ignore us, which is a good thing,” Washington State House Transportation Committee Vice Chair Brandy Donaghy (D-Snohomish County) said. “We can keep going, and that’s the important part.”

A contrasting and pithy reaction to the federal rejection came from a rail advocate who takes a dim view of what he calls the “bullet train boondoggle.”

“Thank god,” wrote Vashon Island’s Bill Moyer in an email.

The missed high-speed rail grant from the federal government would have paid for conceptual engineering, environmental analysis and business case development to pin down important, unresolved details for a Cascadia bullet train such as the best routes, timeline, financing, and number of stops. The $198 million requested would not have been enough to start track construction, tunneling or even right-of-way acquisition.

To operate at the planned top speed, the proposed electrified bullet train would need its own dedicated track. Eye-balling of possible routes during previous studies projected extensive tunneling and new bridges would be required to achieve the desired speedy trip times.

The current top speed of Amtrak trains in the Pacific Northwest is 79 mph. Those passenger trains are routinely delayed by congestion on a mainline shared with freight trains. BNSF and Union Pacific own the tracks used by passenger trains in the region.

Earlier this year, a consultant on contract to the Washington Legislature’s Joint Transportation Committee estimated construction of a “state of the art” Cascadia high-speed rail link (similar to 200-plus mph systems in Europe and Asia) could cost anywhere between $36 billion and $150 billion dollars.

For a reality check, Oregon and Washington have spent a decade trying to raise a comparatively paltry $6 billion in financing for a new Interstate 5 bridge over the Columbia River and are currently only a little over halfway to the goal.

Doubters are many and it’s not helping that California’s high-speed rail project to connect the San Francisco Bay metro area with Los Angeles is way behind schedule and has incurred huge cost overruns.

However, the Biden administration stood behind the California High-Speed Rail Authority by giving it the single largest grant in this award cycle: $3.07 billion to further construction on the 171-mile initial operating segment in the Central Valley.

The second biggest award was $3 billion to launch construction on the privately operated Brightline West high-speed intercity rail line between suburban Los Angeles and Las Vegas. In addition, the Federal Railroad Administration selected eight bridge, track and station replacement projects for more modest support out of a total of 67 grant applications. All of those chosen were “shovel-ready” construction projects, as opposed to a big-ticket planning grant as Washington state requested.

Washington and Oregon were among 44 states that got $500,000 Corridor Identification and Development grants. Washington Transportation Secretary Roger Millar said one of those awarded grants would pay to create a blueprint for improvements to the Amtrak Cascades service over the next 20 years. The second grant the Northwest states got will support planning and viability assessment of the separate rail corridor for the proposed Cascadia bullet train, including a potential future extension to Eugene.

State Sen. Marko Liias (D-Edmonds), chair of the Washington Senate Transportation Committee, echoed WSDOT agency leaders who said in a press release they are pleased because the two modest grant awards mean both programs in the Northwest are designated as national rail corridors and, the release said, “are now part of the federal funding pipeline for future intercity passenger rail projects.”

“Corridor selections announced today create a strong pipeline of projects that will drive future passenger rail expansion in America,” amplified FRA Administrator Amit Bose in a prepared statement. “The Federal Railroad Administration is particularly excited about the potential of the Cascadia High-Speed Rail Corridor.”

Push for Amtrak improvements instead

Some passenger rail advocates have voiced misgivings about throwing money and energy at the Cascadia bullet train while the existing Amtrak Cascades line struggles with reliability and capacity. In September, 15 transit user and climate action groups led by the small nonprofit Solutionary Rail co-signed a letter to Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg and Administrator Bose urging them to reject the grant application for Cascadia high-speed rail planning.

“We don’t need the ‘Ultra’ high speed boondoggle project. We need the feds to support implementation of the common sense and feasible long range plan for the Amtrak Cascades that delivers Acela-like higher speed rail to our region,” said Moyer, who authored the book “Solutionary Rail” about electrifying railroads.

Moyer and like-minded rail advocates want Washington and Oregon to prioritize ramping up service on the state-supported Amtrak Cascades line to 110 mph with hourly departures throughout the daytime and evenings. That would require straightening some slow-speed curves and building more triple-track segments along the BNSF mainline for passenger trains to overtake slower freight trains.

The group letter to the U.S. Department of Transportation argued that investing in Amtrak Cascades would bring mobility and climate benefits to the region much sooner and more cheaply than a bullet train decades in the future could.

“We support both. They’re both important,” responded Ron Pate, Cascadia High-Speed Rail and I-5 Program Administrator at WSDOT. “They work together to get the best value out of the system.”

Covetous eyes cast on $150 million state set-aside

In 2022, Washington state legislators pledged $150 million to attract a much larger sum of federal matching dollars for the Cascadia bullet train project. Now as it turns out the federal spigot isn’t opening – at least, not anytime soon – rail advocates and others want to get their hands on that money.

Liias said part of the $50 million set aside in the current budget will still be needed for corridor planning. What’s left over could be spent on other projects such as to improve safety for bicyclists and pedestrians. He expressed confidence the Legislature will secure any money needed to match a future grant.

Moyer suggested the $150 million be redirected to Amtrak Cascades improvement projects, such as straightening a sharp curve over Interstate 5 near DuPont, Washington, where a deadly derailment happened in 2017.

Passenger rail advocates such as the group All Aboard Northwest are also holding out for better east-west service. A proposed state-supported Seattle-Yakima Valley-Pasco-Spokane passenger line was critiqued in a consultant study from a few years ago as unlikely to attract enough ridership to justify the heavy investment needed to upgrade the existing slow-speed freight tracks.

Separately, the mayors of Boise and Salt Lake City spearheaded an application this past spring for federal money to launch a feasibility study of restoring the old Amtrak Pioneer route. Until the line was canceled due to declining ridership in 1997, Pioneer trains ran between Salt Lake City and Seattle via Pocatello, Boise, Pendleton, the Columbia River Gorge and Portland.

But on Friday, the Federal Railroad Administration passed over the Amtrak Pioneer study funding request.

Another discontinued route of regional interest, the old North Coast Hiawatha, did get a lifeline for possible revival. That alternative routing through Montana of the long-distance Empire Builder train got $500,000, similar to the Amtrak Cascades development grant. The North Coast Hiawatha route swings through Billings, Bozeman, Butte and Missoula, which the current Empire Builder bypasses on its northerly crossing.

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