Spokane Journal of Business

Passenger rail study unveiled

Spokane-Tri-Cities-Seattle daylight service is feasible, but ‘many years’ off, report says

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The introduction of daylight passenger rail service connecting Spokane, the Tri-Cities, and Seattle is feasible physically and operationally, a Washington state Department of Transportation study has found.

However, the minimum $350 million worth of infrastructure improvements needed along the envisioned route to make the service safe and dependable means that it will take many years to make that transportation alternative a reality, given the states current transportation funding woes, the study says.

The state DOT released results of the $150,000 study, called the East-West Passenger Rail Feasibility Study, earlier this month. The purpose of the study is to provide policymakers and the public with information on the potential for new daytime rail service between communities in Eastern and Western Washington.

In 1993, the Legislature established the goal of introducing high-speed ground transportation between Seattle and Spokane by the year 2030. That mandate, combined with strong support from Eastern Washington communities for a new, intrastate passenger train that travels during daylight hours, led to the DOT study.

This is not a surprise to anybody that the costs are quite significant, says Kirk Fredrickson, planning and policy coordinator for the DOTs rail office. He acknowledges, though, that there likely will be some disappointment among project backers who are eager to see the service get under way.

Some people, of course, want to see us start it tomorrow, he says.

Spokanes Chris Marr, who last week became chairman of the Washington state Transportation Commission, says he hasnt been briefed yet on the studys findings, but doesnt find what hes heard so far to be surprising. In Eastern Washington, at least for now based on the economics, the focus for relieving cross-state congestion on the states highways probably still needs to be on freight rail rather than passenger rail, he says.

Marr emphasizes that he supports continued study of all types of transportation alternatives, from telecommuting to high-occupancy vehicle lanes, and rail or light-rail in areas where it makes sense, but I think to say that the same solutions apply throughout the state is not the right type of thinking.

Focus on one corridor

The DOT study offers a preliminary look at the feasibility of new service along the Stampede Pass rail corridor, which is one of Washingtons three cross-state rail corridors. It also provides a list of priorities for future, in-depth analysis of east-west passenger rail service in the state. The states two other cross-state rail corridorsthe Stevens Pass route connecting Seattle, Everett, and Spokane, and the Columbia River Gorge route between Vancouver and Spokanewerent evaluated due to limited funding, but are proposed for study later.

An in-depth study of the feasibility of introducing new Amtrak service on all three potential east-west rail corridors was supposed to begin last winter. However, the passage of Initiative 695 in late 1999 caused funding for the study to be trimmed by 90 percent, making a comprehensive analysis impossible, the DOT says. To at least get the study process under way, the state agency decided to move forward with the limited feasibility study of the Stampede Pass route.

The study found that Amtrak service over Stampede Passsoutheast of Interstate 90s Snoqualmie Passis feasible, but further analysis of the route should be performed to obtain detailed ridership, scheduling, and cost information.

The Stampede Pass rail line stretches southeast from the Seattle suburb of Auburn, where it connects to Burlington Northern Santa Fe Railway Co.s main north-south line serving Seattle, to Pasco, where it connects to the Pasco East main line that runs northeast into Spokane. On the east side of the Cascades, after passing through the 1.8-mile-long Stampede Tunnel, the envisioned passenger rail corridor extends through such communities as Cle Elum, Ellensburg, Yakima, Toppenish, Prosser, Kennewick, Pasco, Connell, Ritzville, and Cheney.

The DOT study says the estimated $350 million worth of needed infrastructure improvements is a minimum figure for one daily round trip between Seattle and Spokane, through the Tri-Cities. That could include, for example, a single daily morning departure from Seattle and a single daily morning departure from Spokane, it says. Many of the improvements funded with that money also would provide for more efficient freight movement along the Stampede Pass route, the study says.

The study estimates it would cost about $14 million a year to operate daily roundtrip service along the route. That estimate assumes that the train service would be similar to the Interstate-5 corridors growing Amtrak Cascades service, which began in about 1993 and provides service between Vancouver, British Columbia, and Eugene, Ore., via Seattle and Portland. It doesnt include any revenue projections from ticket sales or express freight service, which obviously would offset the cost.

The study estimates the travel time between Seattle and Spokane would range roughly from between seven hours and 21 minutes and seven hours and 49 minutes, which includes stops in all of the previously mentioned communities.

Because the study focused on the feasibility of new intrastate daylight Amtrak service, it didnt explore the possibility of re-routing Amtraks Empire Builder, which provides long-distance rail service between Chicago and either Seattle or Portland, through Spokane. The Empire Builder typically passes through the state during late evening or early morning hours.

Based on the high cost of introducing the new daylight service, its unlikely that partnership funding of this magnitude could be obtained under the states current transportation funding mechanisms and backlog of projects already scheduled for construction, the studys executive summary says.

It recommends that the state move forward with a detailed feasibility assessment of east-west passenger rail service on all three rail corridors. The DOT, however, is not seeking any money for additional studies in its transportation package currently being considered in special session by the Legislature.

We need to focus on delivering the commitments weve already made, before taking a closer look at any large new projects, Fredrickson says.

Kim Crompton
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