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 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.
Yesterday in part one Bruce Agnew, Director of the Cascadia Center for Regional Development, offered some innovative, lower cost ideas for improving and expanding intercity transportation in “Why Washington State Should Invest in Passenger Rail .”
In this installment, John Niles, a strong advocate for alternatives to intercity passenger rail, suggests an alternative travel service that would be less expensive to operate and more flexible than Amtrak, and still serve the intercity transportation need. Niles is President of Global Telematics, a Seattle based consultancy focused on determining which transportation investments are cost-effective and sustainable, both financially and environmentally. Reach him at email@example.com, 206-781-4475 or http://www.twitter.com/JN_Seattle/.
Survey Says People Want Passenger Rail – But Buses Are More Affordable
By John Niles, Global Telematics
Inter-city passenger rail like Amtrak and Sounder may rank high in public opinion polls, but it’s an expensive service to operate compared with modern motor coaches running on Washington State’s highways and ferries. Nationally, research by Randal O’Toole (pdf) found that Amtrak fares are around 31 cents per passenger mile with government subsidies on top of that, while the newer private bus companies have learned how to be profitable with fares averaging 7 to 10 cents per passenger mile. Private sector bus services in Washington State include Greyhound, Northwestern Stage Lines, and the Canadian Quick Shuttle.
Because not all demand is profitable to meet, the innovative Washington DOT inter-city bus program Travel Washington started in 2007 is using about two million dollars annually in Federal funds to establish and operate new subsidized bus service in four corridors, Port Angeles to Seattle, Walla Walla to Pasco, Omak to Ellensburg, and Kettle Falls to Spokane.
More routes could be added. If the state legislature seeks to invest more tax dollars in passenger transport between cities, Travel Washington is a fine framework program to scale up. Invented by Washington State DOT, this program has convinced the Feds to allow the ongoing expenditures from Greyhound and other bus companies to serve as a 50% local match for Federal capital and operating subsidies for routes operated by new local providers that would otherwise be unprofitable. USDOT highlights this approach as enhancing livability (learn more about USDOT’s livability information).
Travel Washington is now in place to manage additional funds that would set up and subsidize new private sector bus lines to meet market demand in the many locations where train service is too expensive to contemplate. The flexibility of buses to reach all destinations along with new technologies and policies for managing traffic congestion and interline coordination creates an increasingly attractive modal option.
Furthermore, given the existence of private bus companies who could expand service in the I-5 corridor without subsidy, the ridership and subsidy per rider on Amtrak Cascades and Sound Transit’s Sounder should be examined by WSDOT and legislators to assess whether State of Washington has reached or even passed the point of diminishing returns on public investment in inter-city rail.