August 31, 2007

It's Time for the Federal Government to Get Serious About Rail

Bruce Agnew

Recently, The Wall Street Journal provided a rosy update on Amtrak service and an increasing federal budget, particularly for the New York-Boston corridor.

Airplanes are getting stuck in lots of traffic jams this summer, but Amtrak is on a roll. Ridership on the passenger rail system is up 6% so far this year, the biggest jump since the late 1970s. On the Acela Express, trains that run at higher speeds between Washington, New York and Boston, the number of riders has surged 20% over the past 10 months. That's enough new passengers to fill 2,000 Boeing 757 jets.

Ridership is up, according to the article, as business people - wary of endless hassles at Northeast airports - increasingly turn to the comfort of Acela high-speed trains. Meanwhile, folks traveling on this side of the country (from Vancouver, B.C., to Portland, Ore.) are riding old Superliner equipment, while the eight-year-old sleek, highspeed, Spanish-made Talgo equipment is laid up because of cracks in the train sets.

Congress and the Administration need to get serious about funding a national freight and passenger rail system. And they should reward states like California and Washington who have invested hundreds of millions of dollars worth of state transportation funds in partnership with Amtrak - not just the politically well-connected Northeast states that have hardly invested any state or local resources.

Recently, the British Columbia government stepped up to invest nearly $5 million in track improvements to allow a second roundtrip between Seattle and Vancouver in advance of the 2010 Olympics. Perhaps it is time to petition Ottawa and Washington to form an international compact for coinvestment in the corridor for freight and passenger capacity. Real investment would go a long way toward relieving pressure on overcrowded I-5 and Highway 99. That, in turn, might have the added benefit of reducing this region's contribution to global warming gases.



Some of the federal government *is* serious about rail. Something they understand is that interurban rail can only function when the people at the major hubs have access to last-mile transportation. The Federal Transit Administration helps fund these projects - with, for example, the $1.5 billion total that will be spent by the federal government on Sea-Tac to UW light rail. Building ridership on that line will make Amtrak Cascades service more attractive, helping WSDOT make the case to the state legislature for capital projects funds to reduce times and add service.

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