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The Washington State Department of Transportation (WSDOT) is in the process of updating its rail plan and passenger rail advocates on both sides of the border are working to put Blaine on the Amtrak Cascades map.
“We want to secure an Amtrak stop for Blaine,” said Bill Becht, an organizer for the Save the Blaine Station group, which supports passenger rail travel and the restoration of the historic Blaine depot. “Having the Amtrak stop would make Blaine a destination city rather than a pass-through town. It’s a huge need.”
Becht, along with members from the Cascadia Center for Regional Development, has put together a petition to gather cross-border support for the added stop, which would not only break up the long stretch of track between Bellingham and Vancouver but also give residents south of the Fraser River a more viable option for rail travel. “They asked me to get 250 signatures, but I’m going for 10,000,” he said.
The groups plan to present the petition at a WSDOT meeting that has been tentatively scheduled for sometime in May once provincial elections have come to rest. The meeting, which will be held in the lower mainland, will give stakeholders on the north end of the Cascades service an opportunity to voice their concerns.
“[A stop] would bring a lot of people into downtown Blaine,” Becht added. “Look at the success of the Bellingham airport; there are plenty of Canadians who are willing to come down here for their transportation needs. The need is definitely there.”
Grant Meyer, council member for the City of White Rock, concurred. “Right now, to catch the train into Seattle, folks in Surrey or White Rock have to either spend an hour driving up to metro Vancouver only to end up where they started an hour later, or they have to cross through the border to get to the Bellingham station,” he said. “By the time they do all that driving, a lot of them just decide it’s easier to continue on to Seattle so they skip the train.”
Resolutions in favor of the train stop have been passed in Blaine, White Rock, Surrey and Delta, Meyer said, and he is hoping that the Langley township will follow suit. Meyer said that he has been sending letters in support of the train to provincial officials and hopes that something will come of his lobbying. “I’m a passenger rail advocate. We’ve always wanted a second metro station for the Vancouver area, so when Bruce Agnew started talking about a bi-national stop, we got on board.”
“This petition will complement city council resolutions in favor of the stop,” said Agnew, who works with the Cascadia Institute. “It’s very important to show that there is cross-border support because that’s what WSDOT is looking for as they determine what they will do with the federal money they have received for high-speed rail.”
WSDOT received nearly $800 million in federal money as part of the 2009 American Recovery and Reinvestment Act high-speed-rail program administered by the Federal Railroad Administration. The funds are slated for high-speed rail projects in the corridor that must be completed by 2017 and have been earmarked for creating two additional daily routes between Seattle and Portland as well as track and route improvements that will increase on-time performance and reduce overall travel time by 10 minutes.
“That money is committed. It’s real and we’re in the process of delivering those projects now. We’re making some really significant improvements to the Cascades corridor,” said Kerri Woehler, strategic assessment manager for the WSDOT. “What we’re doing next is looking at how we move forward with the service and what our goals should be over time as we develop the state rail plan.”
The state rail plan will determine how and where future funding is used along the 467-mile corridor and what kind of improvements and stops should be added. While they said they are eager to get into talks with the province, it’s a waiting game for the moment.
“We have to wait until provincial elections are settled, then we can engage in negotiations with those folks,” Agnew said. While the resolutions passed by the townships and cities are a move in the right direction, it’s going to take more than that to secure the train stop on the border. He said with 33 miles of the corridor’s track in Canada, to ensure the success of a bi-national stop provincial officials are going to have to invest in the railway. “It’s going to take a financial commitment,” Agnew said. “There has to be a Canadian commitment to improve travel time so that WSDOT can honor their mandate. We can’t slow the train down, so we’re working in earnest to make sure that adding a stop in Blaine doesn’t result in slowed travel time.”
He added that it would be important for the lower mainland’s tourism groups to rally around the project as well. “People who travel between Vancouver and Seattle have no idea about the White Rock and Blaine area and the beautiful environment here,” Agnew said. “It’s something we need to aggressively market. There’s more to it than people just wanting a stop. It’s part of a larger bi-national tourism strategy.”
Woehler said Blaine is not the only community that has approached WSDOT about adding a stop. “We’ve had several communities express interest in being added to the route, but we haven’t made any of those decisions yet. We’re still developing our criteria for how we consider where new stops should be placed,” she said. “The reality is that we can’t stop in every town. We have to think of the Cascades service as a system and how it’s working to meet the needs of our riders.”
For more information or to sign the petition, visit blainestation.com.