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NW Spin Off For Amtrak?

As the nation’s Amtrak system threatens to go off the rails financially, transportation officials in Washington and Oregon are hoping to fashion a regional passenger rail line from the wreckage.
On Feb. 7 the Amtrak Reform Council, established by Congress to determine if Amtrak could support itself, will present to Congress and the White House its proposal to reorganize the system.

Bruce Chapman, the council’s only West Coast board member and also president of Seattle-based Discovery Institute, said the council will advocate spinning off the more successful regional operations, such as the Northwest rail service running between Eugene, Ore., and Vancouver, B.C.

“Our suggestion is that Amtrak be replaced with a series of corridor-based entities,” Chapman said in an interview. “Most people on the Amtrak Reform Council anticipate the Northwest would be an entity unto itself.”

In November, the council concluded the current Amtrak system can’t survive financially. In 2000, Washington, D.C.-based Amtrak – formally known as the National Railroad Passenger Corp. – lost $768 million on revenues of $2.1 billion. It continued to lose money at a similar clip last year.

The Northwest rail corridor is in many ways Amtrak’s most successful. Ridership has been growing rapidly since modern, Spanish-built railcars were added several years ago, and ticket sales cover much of the system’s costs. The other strong Amtrak corridor is on the East Coast, between Boston and Washington, D.C.

The possible conversion is supported by transportation officials in Washington and Oregon, who believe they can better meet the growing demand for north-south rail service without oversight from Washington, D.C. They envision a regionally controlled system, with the operations side supported by a combination of fares and subsidies from the governments of Oregon and Washington, while the federal government funds capital improvements.

“What we’d really like to do is to take the best from Amtrak, and turn it into a program that really allows us a great deal of flexibility and a whole new set of opportunities,” said Jim Slakey, director of public transportation and rail for the state Department of Transportation in Olympia.

But the reform council’s plan faces vehement opposition from the AFL-CIO, which claimed in a statement that the council has an “ideological agenda” to privatize the rail system. The union has filed suit against the council, seeking an injunction to bar it from submitting its recommendations to Congress.

The state of Washington currently spends $11 million a year to support five Amtrak Cascades trains daily between Seattle and Portland and one between Seattle and Vancouver, B.C. Ridership increased 9 percent last year to 600,000 people, and ticket sales covered about half the expenses, Slakey said.

The Oregon operation is smaller, costing the state $4.8 million a year for the operating costs of two trains between Eugene and Portland, with some backup from buses, said Claudia Howells, manager for the Oregon Department of Transportation’s rail division. Passenger volume has been growing at 10 percent to 20 percent a year, and about 100,000 people rode the Oregon leg of the journey last year.

“We’re beginning to pick up people who otherwise would have flown, and are now finding the train to be a much better option,” she said.

Both officials believe state funding will continue, despite the budget problems faced by Washington and Oregon.

“It’s barely a ripple on the surface, when you compare with what we pay for highways,” Howells said of Oregon’s subsidies, pointing out that Oregon spends $1 billion annually on highways.

Slakey said the state’s contribution to Amtrak Cascades is based on the investment’s impacts on traffic volumes. Eventually he expects the system will operate 13 round trips daily between Seattle and Portland, and four between Seattle and Vancouver.

“We have a car, rail and airline elements, and the state is saying we think rail passenger service, with that level of frequency, can really have an impact on the condition of 1-5, ” he said.

One question being explored is what form a new regional passenger rail organization might take. Possibilities include a state-run service, an entity built from a piece of the current Amtrak system, or a private-sector company.

“If Amtrak at the national level is no longer what it is today, then one possible way we’re pretty comfortable with is creating a separate Amtrak West,” said Howells. She’s “somewhat cautious” about the state simply taking over, but also feels “the leap to privatization is premature.”

The Cascadia Project, affiliated with Chapman’s Discovery Institute of Seattle, has been working with state and federal officials to develop a new framework for passenger rail.

The Cascadia Project is advocating a newly organized Amtrak West that would maintain regional responsibility for running the trains, while the federal government supplies funding for capital expenditures, said director Bruce Agnew.

“It’s the answer to the conundrum we’re facing in Washington, D.C., that people want to fund high-speed rail, but they’re worried about Amtrak viability,” he said.

One challenge with the corridor-based model is whether or not long-distance trains such as the Coast Starlight and Empire Builder will continue, and how they will be funded if they do.

Slakey said he’s optimistic discussions here and in Washington, D.C., will eventually lead to some sort of independent regional rail entity here.

“We consider our program the model of two states investing state dollars in the program, and trying to drive regional decisions based on the states’ investment,” he said. “We’re very excited about having this conversation with people, because we think there’s a real future for rail, and we would like to determine our own future.”