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The little train to Bellingham that could–and should

For those of us who live in Seattle, part of the delight of living in the Puget Sound area is to travel north, escaping the grip of traffic and urbanization around Marysville and emerging into the wondrous Skagit Valley during the annual tulip festival. I’m sure that many have thought how nice it would be to take the train and avoid the rush of traffic and headaches of parking.
A group of community leaders from Everett to Blaine known as the Farm House Gang has thought about trains as well. Working with the Legislature, state transportation department and Amtrak West officials, a second train was added last year to the Amtrak Cascades service between Seattle and Bellingham.

People responded. Ridership has increased more than 55 percent since the service began between Seattle and Vancouver, B.C., in 1995 and was voted “train of the year” in customer satisfaction nationwide.

Canadians caught the train bug, as well. After years of strained relations from salmon allocation disputes and despite a merry-go-round of premiers, the Provincial government–at the urging of Washington’s Gov. Gary Locke–was set to announce a $20 million investment in Amtrak’s Cascades service. The Canadian investment would allow the second train to join the first train continuing up the coast from Bellingham to Vancouver, B.C.

With two trains daily, North Sound residents are joining international visitors in traveling southbound through Seattle to Olympia, Portland and beyond without having to layover for a night.

Last week, buried in the details of the state House $3.2 billion transportation budget was a $3.5 million reduction that could eliminate the second train. Fortunately, the Senate has approved the $3.5 million.

The House cut is perplexing. The committee co-chairwoman, Rep. Ruth Fisher, D-Tacoma, is a strong passenger rail advocate. House members from the Edmonds area north have also been strong supporters. Nevertheless, for a savings of $3.5 million, the pending $20 million British Columbia contribution is put in jeopardy. And $30 million in previous investments by Washington state, Amtrak West and Burlington Northern Santa Fe Railroad would be negated.

The budget cut also pulled the rug out from under the city of Mount Vernon and Mayor Skye Richendrfer, who, with the help of the Farmhouse Gang, has dreams of revitalizing downtown Mount Vernon. This dream would turn a community wedged between the Skagit River and I-5 into a gateway linking the San Juans to the Cascades to the Cascadia corridor from Vancouver to Oregon.

Richendrfer also has been working with Anacortes and Sydney, B.C., leaders to maintain the international ferry route through enhanced marketing efforts–a job made tougher with the proposed cuts to San Juan ferry service.

Key to his vision is a multimodal train station at the Old Grainery–right in the middle of downtown Mount Vernon. With the help of U.S. Rep. Jack Metcalf and Sens. Slade Gorton and Patty Murray, federal funds were secured for a station to link all forms of transportation. With the cut, the station will now see half the rail service it was built to accommodate.

As more people move to Skagit and Whatcom counties and commute to jobs in King and Snohomish counties, Richendrfer, Skagit County Commissioner Harvey Wolden and the Farm House Gang are already talking about extending commuter rail from Everett to Blaine. Commuter rail would service the demands of companies such as The Boeing Co. in Everett. Without the two trains, however, these dreams would die.

Beyond the damage to communities north of Seattle, this cut will add more congestion on I-5 into King County from the north. Train service is a real, if modest, opportunity to target spikes in rush-hour traffic.

Last Saturday, community leaders from Edmonds to White Rock, B.C., rallied in Mount Vernon to urge restoration of the train service cuts.

But more than community rallies are needed now if we are going to address the transportation gridlock.

For several years Gov. Locke, numerous state legislators, mayors and city and county council members up and down the corridor have supported expanded passenger rail service between Seattle and Vancouver, B.C. It would be a shame to give up now when we are so close to providing a successful alternate form of transportation.

Bruce Agnew is director of Discovery Institute’s Cascadia Project.

Bruce Agnew

Director, Cascadia Center
Since 1993, Bruce Agnew has been leading the Northwest Cascadia initiative serving as director of the Cascadia Center in Seattle. The Center is a private, non-profit, public policy center engaged in regional and international transportation and technology. Bruce also co-chairs of the Transportation Group for the Pacific Northwest Economic Region (PNWER) – a public private partnership of ten Northwest states and Western Canadian provinces/territories. Since 2017, he has served as director of the ACES NW Network dedicated to the acceleration of ACES (Autonomous-Connected-Electric-Shared) technology in transportation.