State transportation officials say they would welcome a new infusion of federal funding for high-speed rail, but local riders shouldn't expect a bullet train to Seattle anytime soon. Meanwhile, rail advocates fear that the state could lose hundreds of millions in money its already been awarded for high-speed rail, including projects in Cowlitz County.
President Obama this week called for a new six-year, $53 billion spending plan to develop a national high-speed rail network.
The proposal identified no specific rail improvements, and it may not gain traction in a Republican-controlled House of Representatives.
Even so, Washington Transportation Secretary Paula Hammond endorsed the administration's latest initiative while attending an event with Vice President Joe Biden Tuesday in Philadelphia. Hammond chairs the States for Passenger Rail Coalition.
"Washington's future economic competitiveness is threatened by increased highway congestion and declining roadway conditions," she said in a prepared statement. "A recovered economy will depend on an integrated transportation system that works for everyone."
Rail improvements are gradually beginning to take shape along the rail corridor linking Seattle to Portland, but state rail officials and high-speed rail enthusiasts are concerned that nearly $1 billion in federal economic stimulus funding already approved for Washington high-speed rail might be in jeopardy.
Since January last year, the Federal Railroad Administration has awarded $782 million for Washington high-speed rail projects, about $200 million for new sidings in the Woodland to Kelso stretch of the Burlington Northern Santa Fe main line. Ports officials have long sought those improvements to relieve congestion, which they say would make them more attractive to potential employers.
None of that money has been released yet. It's pending implementation agreements between the Washington State Department of Transportation and Burlington Northern. In its February/March newsletter — The Washington Rail News — high-speed rail advocates worries that the money could get bartered away by demands of the new Congress to curb federal spending.
"The whole game of the Tea Party types is to cut everything," Ray Chambers, a fellow at the pro-rail Cascadia Center for Regional Development, said in the newsletter "I hope the FRA can find a way to obligate that money as soon as possible."
Scott Witt, rail and marine director for the DOT, said that state officials anticipate making slow but steady improvements on the existing BNSF line.
European-style bullet trains traveling at up to 250 mph are likely to occur only on segregated rail lines constructed on entirely new corridors, currently envisioned in Florida and California. In the Pacific Northwest, Witt said, transportation officials hope to boost maximum passenger speeds to 90 mph. The current speed limit on that corridor is 79 mph.
That will mainly happen through incremental steps such as straightening track, cutting back the number of grade crossings and reducing freight congestion with new siding.
Complicating matters is the Federal Railroad Administration's insistence on an agreement with BNSF Railway and the state Department of Transportation. Federal officials want assurances that, by spending federal money on a privately owned railroad, the improvements will enhance passenger service over the long term.
"This is an extremely complex arrangement," Witt said.
He said the DOT's long-term goal is to shave an hour from the 3 1/2 hour trip between Seattle and Portland, which would make rail travel more competitive with driving. Ultimately, he said, the state envisions 16 round-trip passenger trains operating between Portland and Seattle.
"You would expect certain trains, our higher-speed express, would go from Seattle to Portland nonstop," Witt said. "There will be other trains that may be able to stop at all 12 stations, and some that stop at six."