True high-speed rail is still far down the track, but President Barack Obama’s blueprint for investing billions in rail has one big thing going for it: The Pacific Northwest is on it.
Obama’s plan – which directs the spending of $8 billion in federal stimulus money and pledges to request another $1 billion annually for the next five years – represents the biggest federal commitment for passenger rail in decades.
Certainly, $8 billion won’t buy a European-style network of bullet trains crisscrossing the country.
But the money can help pick up the pace along well-traveled regional corridors. One of the 10 corridors identified by the White House is the Eugene, Ore., to Vancouver, B.C., route served by the Cascades line.
Cascades – a joint venture between Amtrak and the states of Washington and Oregon – is the make-do version of high-speed rail.
Rather than build a whole new right of way with state-of-the-art technology, the partners focused on improving what they already had. They bought newer train equipment capable of running 110 mph, then set out to gradually bring the existing tracks up to par.
That was 10 years ago. Ridership has since grown 71 percent to 775,000 passengers last year – despite that current track and safety systems keep trains from traveling faster than 79 mph.
It hasn’t been cheap. The states and other local governments have spent $1 billion on the Cascades corridor, by some estimates. But the partnership’s work should position this region nicely to receive federal funds.
Cascades needs to have quicker, more frequent service and better on-time performance. That goal will require work to clear choke points, install better signals and separate grade crossings.
A recent study by the state Department of Transportation pegged the cost of doubling the number of daily Seattle-to-Portland roundtrips to eight and shaving a half hour off the travel time at $817 million.
The payoff: Ridership would more than double. That’s thousands of cars a day that would not be clogging I-5.
State transportation planners have the projects ready to go. All they need is the money. Washington and Oregon have wisely invested in getting the dream of high-speed rail this far. By rewarding that effort with a healthy infusion of funding, the feds could encourage others to do the same.