LES BLUMENTHAL: Staff writer 1/28/2010
WASHINGTON – Plans for a high-speed rail corridor between Portland and Seattle will receive a boost today when the Transportation Department announces $590 million in funding for the project.
Both Washington and Oregon have bought trains capable of traveling at 125 mph. But because of safety and freight traffic concerns, the trains are limited to 79 mph maximum and are plagued by slowdowns and erratic schedules
The higher speeds may still be years off, but the funding will be used to eliminate bottlenecks in the corridor and improve on-time arrivals.
“Anybody who travels the I-5 corridor in our state knows that we need to find new, efficient options to get commuters and commerce moving,” said Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash. “This funding is the opportunity we’ve been waiting for to help make these improvements a reality.”
Murray, chairwoman of the Senate transportation appropriations subcommittee, learned of the funding in a phone call Wednesday from Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood.
Even though they had sought $1.3 billion, state officials said they were more than pleased with the amount and are already working on an application for the next round of funding.
“If that’s the number, that’s a big chunk,” said Scott Witt, director of the Washington Department of Transportation’s rail and marine program.
Congress provided $8 billion for high-speed rail corridors in the $787 billion stimulus and economic recovery bill it approved almost a year ago. President Barack Obama will travel today to Florida, where he is expected to announce funding for 13 high-speed rail corridors in 31 states.
Since 1994, Washington and Oregon have invested nearly $1.1 billion in the Cascades high-speed rail corridor. State officials said earlier that the federal funding would help pay for needed improvements in an effort to get train speeds to 110 mph.
But Witt said even with the federal funding the trains won’t reach 110 mph. Instead, the money will help the trains better keep to their schedule. About 64 percent of trains on the Portland to Seattle route arrive on time. Witt said that will increase to about 90 percent.
“They will run on time,” he said. “It’s about consistency of service.”
The $590 million is a good start, Witt said. “This is a marathon, not a sprint,” he said. “As the president said, this is a down payment.”
Built in Spain, the Talgo trains are equipped with a suspension system that allows them to lean into curves.
The passenger trains currently share track with freight trains on the BNSF mainline and sometimes face backups. The Amtrak Cascades route between Eugene, Ore., and Seattle had a 64 percent average on-time performance in 2008. The Portland-Seattle line carried 750,000 passengers in 2008, an 82 percent increase over 10 years ago.
Corridor improvements could reduce travel time from Portland to Seattle by almost an hour, from three hours and 25 minutes to two hours and 30 minutes.
The state wants to alleviate the congestion with a 19.2-mile inland “bypass” that runs through South Tacoma, Lakewood, past Fort Lewis and DuPont before rejoining the tracks in the Nisqually area. It’s expected to reduce the Seattle-Portland run by six minutes.
But Lakewood officials have voiced concern over the plan since it was unveiled in 2006. The route will run through neighborhoods and intersect streets where there’s currently no train traffic, except slow-moving freight trains that use it a couple of times a week. Lakewood also won’t get a stop on the Amtrak route.
On Jan. 19, the Lakewood City Council passed a resolution asking the state and federal governments to withhold funding until its concerns are addressed.
“Lakewood has taken issue with the state’s decision to avoid an environmental review for this project in light of serious traffic and safety concerns,” according to the city’s Web site. Lakewood officials say the local fire and school districts plan to issue similar resolutions.
Washington state and California officials have had preliminary discussions about a high-speed rail line between San Diego and Vancouver, B.C., using trains that could travel 200 mph. By some estimates, the corridor could cost between $10 million and $45 million per mile.
Les Blumenthal: 202-383-0008
Staff writer Brent Champaco contributed to this report.