‘The Left Coast’ Deserves Expanded Amtrak Service

A trip down to Portland on Amtrak’s comfortable Cascades train leaves you relaxed and ready to enjoy tales of woe from those who have dealt with airport security or traffic on Interstate 5.
As well, riding the rails gives passengers time to reflect on a trio of topics: how we deal with Northwest growth, the Mickey Mouse aspects to the war on terrorism and East Coast arrogance toward our region.

Air and highway travelers from the Emerald City can be fun to watch upon arrival in the Rose City.

At a Poynter Institute writers workshop last weekend, a New York Times writer steamed red-of-face about one minute before his scheduled presentation.

“That @#$&**##!!! Seattle airport,” he snapped. “Three of the four screening machines were shut down.”

My friend had endured the long security lineup at Sea-Tac’s Concourse C, headache for a lot of passengers taking short-hop fights. He set off the lone operating machine, the resulting pat-down and shoe X-ray causing him to miss a flight.

Nor was I-5 any fun. It experienced a long delay last Friday as a southbound semi jackknifed and then sprawled like a dead elephant in the northbound lanes.

Even with no accidents, the four-lane highway south of Olympia is a headache, with long lines forming whenever a tractor-trailer rig going 61 mph decides to pass one going 60 mph.

But train service is looking up.

Don’t thank Amtrak. Its national brass keeps pouring the majority of federal dollars into the Northeast corridor, where Amtrak owns tracks and stations.

Instead, Washington, Oregon and California have improved tracks and upgraded once-dingy stations along America’s “left coast.” Our state’s contribution comes to $125 million.

“My state has put up money — even bought its own rail cars — while other states continue to enjoy far superior service while putting up nothing,” Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., noted at a March hearing.

Better service is drawing more people. Passenger trips on the Amtrak Cascades, which runs up and down the I-5 corridor from Eugene, Ore., to Vancouver, B.C., climbed 14.3 percent in the first quarter of 2002 over the same period last year.

Of course, there are still glitches.

On Sunday afternoon, I booked return passage on the Coast Starlight, scheduled to travel the 1,389 miles from Los Angeles to Seattle in 34 1/2 hours.

Not for nothing is it known as the “Star Late.” The train left Portland’s Union Station 50 minutes late. Arriving in Seattle, the train pulls ahead into a tunnel, and then backs into the station. It’s a bit strange … but less bizarre than surrendering your shoes at Concourse C and seeing little old ladies told to “Spread ’em!”

During a recent 2nd Congressional District candidate debate, Herb Meyer, a former Reagan administration intelligence official, recounted taking his aged mother to catch a flight home. She made the mistake of packing nail clippers in a carry-on bag. “They treated her like the Taliban,” Meyer said.

Sensibly, increasing numbers of Northwesterners facing 150- to 250-mile trips want to avoid nail-clipper cops and congested freeways.

There’s a symmetry to population projections from Eugene to Vancouver. In the next 25 years, about 1.3 million people are expected to move into Oregon’s lower Willamette Valley. We’ll gain the same number in the Puget Sound corridor. The southwest corner of British Columbia is also expected to see 1.3 million new residents.

The situation cries out for an expansion of Amtrak.

“State rail planners estimate the upgrade of Amtrak Cascades service to the ultimate plan — 13 daily round trips to Portland and Eugene, five to Vancouver — at $1.4 billion for the 464-mile corridor,” said Bruce Agnew, head of the Cascadia Project at the Discovery Institute.

Compare that with the $7.5 billion price tag for an expanded Interstate 405. The bill for upgrading and expanding Amtrak service is about equal to a couple of the planned interchanges on I-405.

My trip to Portland on Friday took 3 1/2 hours, the train hitting a maximum speed of 79 mph. With better tracks and new equipment, the jaunt will be 2 1/2 hours, the train going up to 110 mph.

Sounds great, but Amtrak is on its biscuit financially.

As it spends billions to counter air terror, the Bush administration wants to freeze Amtrak’s budget at $521 million. The rail system is asking $1.2 billion next year for capital and infrastructure expenses.

Unless he gets the money, Amtrak President George Warrington warns he will shut down most Amtrak service on Sept. 30, including the Coast Starlight and the eastbound Seattle (and Portland) to Chicago Empire Builder. State subsidies would allow Amtrak Cascades service to survive, but likely not grow.

Of course, under Warrington’s plan, Amtrak would concentrate resources in the Washington, D.C.-to-Boston corridor.

Or as Murray put it, “The states that currently enjoy the best rail service and put up none of their own money will continue to enjoy that service while the rest of the country will do without.”

As transportation policy, it makes even less sense than shoe checks at Concourse C.