Agreement assures $200 million in high-speed rail work in Cowlitz County

2011-02-28T12:30:00Z 2011-03-01T16:26:36Z Agreement assures $200 million in high-speed rail work in Cowlitz CountyBy Andre Stepankowsky / The Daily News Longview Daily News
February 28, 2011 12:30 pm  • 

Ten miles of new rail line costing $200 million will be built between Kelso and Woodland over the next six years to help improve and expand Amtrak service under an agreement announced Monday in Olympia and Washington, D.C.

The funding is part of $590 million in federal stimulus money the state will get for high-speed rail development. The goal is to add two additional daily round trips on Amtrak's Cascades route between Seattle and Portland, for a total of six, and improve on-time reliability to 88 percent, up from 62 percent currently, according to state rail officials

Funding had been announced last year, but there was a chance it could have been rescinded by Congressional budget deficit reduction efforts. Under an agreement signed by the Federal Railroad Administration and the Washington State Department of Transportation Monday, the money now becomes officially obligated and no longer is subject to being taken away, Scott Witt, director of WSDOT's rail and marine office, said Monday

In a prepared statement, Gov. Chris Gregoire said "This is another great development for our state in that this rail work will generate thousands of highly skilled construction and operating jobs and result in important improvements in rail passenger service. It's especially exciting following the Pentagon's selection of Boeing to build the next generation of Air Force tankers, which also will bring thousands of jobs to Washington."

To put the stimulus funding in perspective, the $590 million is nearly twice the $331 million in state funds invested in high-speed rail since 1994.

Although officially dubbed a high-speed rail project, Witt said the investments in new rails, a bypass tunnel in Tacoma, advanced train control technology and other measures are expected to cut travel time from Portland to Seattle only by 10 minutes - to three hours, 20 minutes. The major purpose is to increase the number of trains and improve on-time reliability, not to reduce travel times, he said.

Between Kelso and Martin's Bluff north of Woodland, three sidings totalling about 10 miles will be built, with construction work likely starting in about two years, Witt said. The estimated total cost of the three projects is $199 million. The new sidings will help get freight trains out of the way of passenger trains and move commerce more quickly, long a goal of local port districts.

"This area has always been identified as a choke point," said Ron Pate, Cascades high-speed rail program manager for WSDOT.

The improvements south of Kelso, a Point Defiance bypass tunnel in Tacoma, and a bypass around the Vancouver rail yard are keys to expanding service and reliability, Witt said.

In addition to track upgrades, the money will pay for installation of advance train control technology in locomotives serving the Portland-Seattle rail corridor, through which computers automatically stop trains if they are on a collision course. Rail safety advocates have long sought the technology, which could have prevented head-on collisions between freight trains south of Kelso in both 1993 and 2003. Five trainman died in the 1993 wreck. The technology already is in use in Eastern Washington.

Work funded by the stimulus money must be completed by Sept. 30, 2017. Witt said completion by that date would be a challenge.

State Transportation Secretary Paula Hammond estimated the rail work will create more than 6,000 direct and indirect jobs in the Pacific Northwest. Work will be contracted out by Burlington Northern Santa Fe, which owns the rail corridor.

Ridership continues to grow on Amtrak's Cascades route, with a 10 percent increase between 2009 and 2010. Since Cascades service began in 1994, annual ridership has increased from 100,000 to 840,000 last year, according to WSDOT. About 72 percent of the route's costs is paid for with ticket sales, with the state subsidizing the remaining 28 percent, Witt said.

In addition to the $590 million in work now funded, Washington will get $161.5 million in high-speed rail funds redirected from Wisconsin and Ohio, which declined the high-speed rail stimulus funds. Agreements to obligate this additional funding for Washington projects are expected in the near future, according to WSDOT.

Washington also will make a bid for some of the $2.4 billion in in high-speed rail funds that Florida may turn down, Witt said.

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