Legislators and transportation stakeholders in Washington State are wrestling with when and how to increase investment to preserve and expand the transportation network. One issue is what to do in the future about the state’s successful intercity passenger rail service.
In a recent Washington State survey, sponsored by the Washington State Transportation Commission, respondents ranked intercity passenger rail as the 2nd most important state investment. 55% said it was more important than expanding transit (51%) or roads (51%), while maintenance was ranked as the most important state investment (85%).
The high ranking is partly due to a high ranking from the greater Seattle area (Everett to Olympia). Passenger rail investment was judged as important by 65% of urban respondents, 54% of suburban and 48% or rural respondents.
While the intercity passenger rail service is popular and ridership has grown annually, it is also expensive to operate. I asked two folks with differing views to address whether there might be some innovative approaches to future investment in NW passenger rail, and why or why not further funds should be invested.
In part one Bruce Agnew, a strong advocate for intercity passenger rail, suggests how that service might be improved and expanded. Agnew is Director of the Cascadia Center for Regional Development at the Discovery Institute in Seattle. The Cascadia Center is a private, non-profit public policy center engaged in promoting national and regional passenger rail, cross-border freight mobility, US /Canada border issues and sustainable community development. Tomorrow we’ll publish part two, “Survey Says People Want Passenger Rail – But Buses Are More Affordable.”
Why Washington State Should Invest in Passenger Rail
Bruce Agnew, Director of the Cascadia Center for Regional Development
Our state successfully competed for $750 million in new federal rail funds for projects with BNSF Railway from Vancouver, Washington to Blaine. These projects have multiple benefits from more passenger service to better freight access to ports and safer highway/rail grade crossings.
The operating subsidy for the Amtrak Cascades service of over $30 million a biennium however, is a political target for rail opponents and the biggest challenge for the Governor and Legislature in considering expansion of service as supported in recent statewide transportation polls.
Fortunately, rail’s unique waterfront and town center rights of way provide private sector opportunities to reduce operating subsidies, add rail service and create jobs
Folks from Blaine and Marysville/Tulalip to Auburn and Olympia want more frequent service which the Amtrak Cascades international service linking Canada to Oregon is not designed for.
The state should encourage public private partnerships for new and expanded train/bus ferry centers linked by more passenger rail. With legislative reform, some of the additional revenue from the increased sales and property taxes around the stations could be earmarked for rail operating subsidies.
Chartered, weekend excursion trains to the Tulalip and other tribal gaming/entertainment/retail complexes on the I-5 corridor could provide new revenue. Specially equipped “bicycle trains” to Portland and Vancouver B.C. could also add revenue and return hundreds of weary riders to home base.
The rail network is not limited to I-5. Snohomish County is exploring a seven mile rail link on a sewer line from Everett to Snohomish to connect the 44 mile Snohomish to Renton BNSF line – providing a loop around Lake Washington. Woodinville wineries and East side trails would be accessible enhancing financial partnerships between commuter trains, tourism and recreation.
New, locomotive – less “diesel multiple unit” (DMU) trains for shorter trips are being used around the country. They cost less to buy and operate with two crew members and many of the same features as the Amtrak Cascades sophisticated high speed trains which require up to five crew for longer trips.
Of course more trains requires more public investments in the BNSF line. Since they carry millions passengers every day, the state should explore new revenue options with them as partners. The highly successful Victoria Clipper derives only
31 50 percent of its revenues from ferry operations – the rest is through vacation packages with their 80 “Two-Nation Vacation” partners.
Why not contract for expanded marketing and sales with them?