One of the nation’s federally recognized high speed rail corridors is the Pacific Northwest corridor, running from Vancouver, British Columbia to Eugene, Oregon. That route already has a successful passenger rail service, the Amtrak Cascades, and both Washington and Oregon have been investing in new tracks and trainsets to provide faster and more frequent service.
But that may all come crashing to a halt if Oregon decides to stop funding its portion of the route. Reports swirled over the weekend that Oregon might defund its part of the Amtrak Cascades, which includes the Portland to Eugene leg of the service. (Washington State funds trips from Vancouver BC to Portland via Seattle.) Here’s the details:
Amtrak’s Cascades route carries the most passengers of any of the railroad’s services outside of California and the Northeast Corridor. According to ODOT, it will cost just over $28 million to keep the line from shutting down later this year….
Passenger rail supporters said they are closely tracking the progress of House Bill 5040. In it, ODOT is asking the legislature for $10.4 million to complete the $28.1 million funding package. They already have two-thirds of that in place.
“The issue is, removing the possibility of continuing these trains breaks the links there,” Leap said. “It breaks the connectivity that ODOT has worked hard to install.”
But KOIN 6 News found out the current proposed budget, as it is written, includes just $5 million for all passenger rail.
If ODOT only gets $5 million for rail, that’s not enough to keep the Talgos operating south of Portland Union Station. No wonder activists are – rightly – up in arms.
Oregon legislators are trying to calm fears:
Democratic Representative David Gomberg, who co-chairs the budget committee that writes ODOT’s budget, said, “I don’t know anybody here that wants to shut down the program. But we’re looking at the total dollars involved.”
Democrats in Salem are apparently trying to find ways to increase the farebox recovery rate, wanting to spend fewer dollars per passenger. That’s fine, but the best way to do that is to actually spend more money – to provide faster, more frequent service along the route.
One of the challenges is that after recently changing the timetables, ridership on the Oregon segment of the Cascades dropped by 15%. Of course, gas prices dropped dramatically during that same time, so I would not be too quick to declare a crisis. But no matter the cause, there is no justification at all for the Oregon legislature to even threaten to cut back funding for rail.
Oregon rail advocates are taking the threat seriously and mobilizing to save the Cascades – and they’re right to do so. As AORTA, the brilliantly-named Association of Oregon Rail and Transit Advocates points out, the Cascades is a tiny fraction of ODOT’s overall budget:
The 2011-13 budget for all of the Oregon Department of Transportation was about $5 billion — billion with a “b.” The $10.4 million to operate passenger rail service is a tiny portion, about two-tenths of 1 percent (0.21) of the ODOT total.
It doesn’t make any sense to haggle over this amount of money. Oregon would do better to start figuring out how to invest in improving service. Right now there are two trains a day connecting Portland to Eugene, making the 110-mile trip in about 2.5 hours. The trains depart PDX at 6AM and 6PM, which isn’t bad but doesn’t provide a whole lot of options for people who need more flexibility. Adding more trains and investing in new tracks to allow for faster speeds would help bring down the long-term operating cost – something Washington State has been able to accomplish.
If high speed rail is ever going to come to the Pacific Northwest, it will need to be built upon a successful Amtrak Cascades service (if not in exactly the same route alignment). Oregon would be dealing a big blow to hopes for Northwest HSR if they defunded the Amtrak Cascades. Let’s hope wiser heads prevail and they fully fund train operations – and start planning for improvements.