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Lawmakers seek compromise plan for another Amtrak train in county

Legislators may derail plans for a second Amtrak train tip through Whatcom County.
The state House of Representatives has approved a transportation budget that doesn’t include money for operating a second train, and boosters are scrambling to find a way to fget the money back into the budget through the Senate.

“The one train we have now isn’t much of a transportation option for people,” said Bruce Agnew, who works with Seattle’s Cascadia Project pushing transportation alternatives and improvements. “This second train is in line with regional plans to increase the options to driving on I-5.”

One train currently serves Whatcom County every day, leaving Seattle in the morning with a stop in Bellingham just before 10 a.m. while heading north to Vancouver, B.C. The train stops again in Bellingham about 7:30 p.m. on its way south back to Seattle.

Train supporters have argued for more than five years that a second train is needed. That train would leave Vancouver, B.C., in the morning and could carry Whatcom County residents to business meetings and Seattle events, returning them home on a northbound trip in the evening. It would also allow county residents to connect to other trains heading south and east from Seattle. Currently anyone riding the evening train to Seattle must get a hotel room for the night if they want to connect to other trains.

State Department of Transportation and Amtrak officials are backing the project. Amtrak has promised $22 million for the service, $10 million for a new train set for the run and $12 million for track improvements in the corridor.

But the state House voted not to spend the $6.3 million estimated cost of operating the line.

Rep. Jeff Morris, D-Alger, tried to introduce an amendment that would have put the money back into the House budget, but his move failed.

“It’s a real shame. People who work would’ve used that train, not just tourists,” Morris said.

But Morris and state Sen. Georgia Gardner, D-Blaine, said they believe by the time the final state transportation budget is complete, the money for the train will be in it.

“I can guarantee you [the money] will be in the Senate version of the budget,” said Gardner, who serves as vice chairperson of the Senate Transportation Committee.

Once the Senate transportation budget is completed, which could come this weekend, Senate and House leaders will get together and come up with a compromise plan, Gardner said.

“We already have the train. It’s been christened,” she said. “I have full confidence we are going to continue to have this money in the budget. We’ll have to agree to give something to get it. But I believe it will be there.”

One of the potential roadblocks to a second train may end up being a non-issue, Gardner said. The state and Amtrak are trying to get the British Columbia government to agree to rebuild train tracks in the province to speed travel and to build a shed to house the train overnight so the train can leave Vancouver, B.C., in the morning.

Gardner said state officials, having no assurances of spending from British Columbia, are now planning to park the train in Blaine every night, in essence cutting the province out of the second run. Even without B.C. riders, Gardner said ridership on the second run would be strong.

“This will serve as alternative transportation for people who travel to Seattle once in awhile to go to a ballgame or for shopping and it will also be available for people who commute to the Everett area,” she said.

Meanwhile, Cascadia’s Agnew said there is a move afoot in British Columbia to get on board with the new service. The B.C. Transportation Finance Authority is considering spending $30 million (Canadian) on track improvements, Agnew said.

“Even if the Canadians end up being a little slow, the train should at least go to Bellingham or Blaine,” he said.