All aboard, together

How new partnerships can benefit our railroad system — and our economy Original Article

Before the Civil War, Congress — eager to bring the riches of the West to Eastern markets — began giving land grants to private railroads to finance track extensions as the railroad sold the newly valuable land.

While some railroad barons corrupted legislators (leading to state laws restricting the lending of public credit to private interests), immigration, westward expansion and the cheap transport of goods accelerated, laying the foundation for today’s economy in Snohomish County.

Railroads and land use have been partnered ever since. Today, we have a chance for a new rail partnership for North Puget Sound, one that joins public and private interests to create good-paying jobs.

It would be patterned after the successful Freight Action Strategy (FAST) for the Everett-Seattle-Tacoma corridor. FAST brought together 26 cities, counties, ports, federal, state and regional transportation agencies, railroads and trucking interests, and has invested nearly $600 million in freight infrastructure projects since 1998 — sometimes shifting funds from delayed projects to those ready to go.

About 1,000 acres of land adjacent to the Burlington Northern Santa Fe Railway and I-5 in north Snohomish County is ready for similar development. Port of Everett Director John Mohr is part of FAST and is an early endorser of a FAST North Corridor — “to prioritize bottlenecks from Seattle to Bellingham that impede rail and vehicle travel.”

A FAST North Corridor project for transportation infrastructure could be a candidate for the new Economic Alliance Snohomish County — the new entity combining the Snohomish County Economic Development Council, the Greater Everett Chamber of Commerce and the South Snohomish County Chamber — sparking collaboration with neighbors to the north and south.

We can’t act quickly enough. The president and our congressional delegation are razor focused on doubling U.S. exports, and rail is a major transportation option for long hauls to ports.

Double stacked intermodal trains on twin tracks currently rumble on the BNSF Railway from Seattle to Everett and east to the Sky Valley as they head to Chicago and beyond. Competition from Canadian ports like Prince Rupert, which offer quicker ocean transit from Asia and congestion-free access to America’s heartland, have spurred our Northwest ports to work with railroads along the northern tier to knock down rail choke points.

Locally, production lines at Boeing are highly dependent on a good rail system with oversized parts arriving by rail and barge at the Port of Everett’s Mount Baker Terminal near Mukilteo.

Local trains carrying grain, coal, propane, fertilizer and wood products on a single track north of Everett to Canada serve important home-grown companies like Twin City Foods in Stanwood and proposed mega-projects like the Pacific Gateway Terminal at Cherry Point in Whatcom County, which is designed to serve a voracious Asian market for energy and other commodities.

2015 may see a tripling of freight traffic on that corridor. Unless we act now, important passenger rail improvements could be squeezed out, including expansion of the international Amtrak Cascades route and potential “interurban” passenger rail to Skagit and Whatcom counties.

The Washington State Department of Transportation has competed well for federal high speed rail funds rejected by other states, yielding several localized track improvements. Future investments for freight and passenger rail, such as double tracking sections from Marysville to Burlington, relocation of rail lines for waterfront redevelopment in Bellingham and highway/rail upgrades, have to be planned now.

Throw in expanded I-5 interchanges (some funded in partnership with developers through local improvement districts) and you have a recipe for job growth and a better commute.

On the federal level, a tug of war on a new transportation bill in Congress could result in a cut of 30 percent in transportation spending. That would create a heightened role for long-term loans guaranteed by the feds to leverage private investment.

More favorable borrowing incentives for a federal rail program offering loans to governments and railroads could provide financing for freight and passenger projects. The Port of Vancouver, Wash., is proposing such a loan to bridge a gap in its $150 million West Side Access Project, which will help ease congestion on mainline tracks for freight and Amtrak Cascades trains.

At the state level, Gov. Chris Gregoire and legislative leaders are looking at a new state transportation package for next year. A FAST North Corridor could help bundle individual projects and present a united group of supporters in Washington, D.C., and Olympia.

Another innovative idea for funding rail and transit facilities and adjacent public trails is contained in new state legislation combining transfers of development rights (TDR) from farms and forests to cities with a variation of tax increment financing. The financing component allows a city to use increased city property tax revenue derived from the transfer of development rights for infrastructure purposes.

Assuming the real estate market comes back, the program could provide Edmonds a chance to turn the old Antique Mall into mixed use development, shared by passenger rail, bus and ferry facilities.

On the Snohomish-to-Renton Eastside Rail corridor, TDR legislation supporter Gene Duvernoy of the Cascade Land Conservancy shares our enthusiasm for joint and simultaneous development of a rail and trail system that “is ready made for great success.”

And to connect Everett to Snohomish on a new passenger rail track, a sewer and utility partnership is possible to share the costs. The new owner of the adjacent BNSF Railway, Warren Buffett, speaks enthusiastically of the use of rail rights of way to bring clean energy from rural areas to city centers.

In our larger Cascadia region, from Vancouver, B.C., to Eugene, Ore., public-private partnerships are taking off. Washington state DOT is pursuing charging stations for electric vehicles along I-5. Portland funded light rail to its airport and built the Pearl District streetcar by capturing the value of adjacent land development.

The Canadians have us all beat. They’ve built a new Sea to Sky road to Whistler, B.C., a Canada rail line to the Vancouver airport and new bridges over the Fraser River by leveraging public dollars and land values, using private engineering talent and sharing the risks. Canada’s West Coast is a tiger in world trade.

We can be, too, with the same kind of visionary, innovative thinking.

All aboard!

Bruce Agnew is director of the Seattle-based Discovery Institute’s Cascadia Center, which promotes high-speed passenger rail and other transportation solutions from Vancouver, B.C., to Eugene, Ore. He is a former member of the Snohomish County Council. Contact him at

Bruce Agnew

Director, Cascadia Center
Since 2017, Bruce has served as Director of the ACES NW Network based in Seattle and Bellevue, Washington. The Network is dedicated to the acceleration of ACES (Autonomous-Connected-Electric-Shared) technology in Northwest transportation for the movement of people and goods. ACES is co-chaired by Tom Alberg, Co-Founder and managing partner of Madrona Venture Group in Seattle and Bryan Mistele, CEO/Co-Founder of INRIX global technology in Kirkland. In 2022, Bruce became the director of the newly created Pacific Northwest Economic Region (PNWER) Regional Infrastructure Accelerator. Initial funding for the Accelerator has come from the Build America Bureau of the USDOT. PNWER is a statutory public/private nonprofit created in 1991 by the U.S. states of Alaska, Idaho, Oregon, Montana, and Washington and the Canadian provinces of Alberta, British Columbia, and Saskatchewan and the territories of the Northwest Territories and the Yukon. PNWER has 16 cross-border working groups for common economic and environmental initiatives.