Washington state could be squandering a unique opportunity to invest in expanded passenger rail service with federal funds that were authorized in the 2021 bipartisan infrastructure act, transportation advocates say.
The 2021 law massively boosted funding for the Federal Railroad Administration (FRA) and Amtrak in order to enhance freight and passenger rail service. As part of the law, the FRA is offering states the chance to apply for the Corridor Identification and Development Program, which grants states and other eligible entities $500,000 to study new or existing rail lines and their potential costs, viability and benefits. About $44 billion will be available to states through 2026 to develop passenger rail service.
According to a spokesperson for the Washington State Department of Transportation (WSDOT), the state is planning to apply for two research grants from the FRA to study funding options for the existing Amtrak Cascades line — which runs from Portland, Oregon, through Seattle to Vancouver, BC — and for a new high-speed rail line between the three cities as well.
This comes soon after Amtrak announced that the Cascades line was restored to its full pre-pandemic service and that the company would add additional trains between Portland and Seattle later this year.
However, the rail advocacy group All Aboard Washington (AAWA) is calling for WSDOT to submit a third grant to research the benefits, costs and economic impacts of a new east-west intercity line, which would run from Seattle through the Cascade mountains at Stampede Pass to cities such as Yakima, Pasco and Spokane. This line would fill an important gap in public transportation for Eastern Washington, said Gary Wirt, the vice president of AAWA.
“The population of Yakima County, Benton County, Franklin County and Spokane County is over a million residents,” Wirt said. “So there’s a considerable number of people that could potentially choose that route.”
Wirt, a resident of Yakima, has been organizing in communities east of the Cascade mountains to highlight the federal funding opportunity and build momentum toward the rail proposal.
AAWA Co-executive Director Charles Hamilton said that the lack of public transit options is a big equity issue for the large portion of Washingtonians who don’t drive.
“Something like 30 percent of the population or more does not drive,” Hamilton said. “Either they’re too young, they’re too old, they’re too poor, they’re disabled like myself or they’re in communities that just don’t have transportation options — or they choose not to drive because they’re worried about the future of the planet.”
The WSDOT spokesperson wrote to Real Change that the department cannot apply for this third grant unless it receives direction from the governor or state legislature. Instead, the agency will wait for Amtrak to conduct its own study on the benefits of reopening the Stampede Pass corridor for long-distance passenger rail service. The last time the route was used by passenger trains was in 1981.
WSDOT also pointed to a 2020 study commissioned by the legislature’s Joint Transportation Committee that looked into the feasibility of opening a twice-daily Stampede Pass line and what infrastructure improvements would be needed to make the route operable. The report concluded that the state would need to invest about $420 million in one-time capital expenses, with a projected annual ridership of more than 200,000. However, the line would still cost more than it would earn in ticket revenue, requiring ongoing subsidies. For comparison, Amtrak Cascades ridership sat at about 800,000 in 2019.
The WSDOT spokesperson claimed that the report showed that the route was not “financially or logistically viable.” Spokespeople for Gov. Jay Inslee and state Sen. Marko Liias, the chair of the senate transportation committee, echoed similar pessimistic sentiments about the 2020 report, stating that they did not provide funding or authorization for WSDOT to apply for FRA funding to study the Stampede Pass corridor this year.
Due to a lack of support from the legislature or governor, it’s unlikely that the state will apply for the third grant by the March 27 deadline. However, AAWA members said that WSDOT and state leaders were jumping the gun in analyzing the merits of the east-west line.
According to them, the report was only meant to focus on whether the state could physically reopen the line and what infrastructure upgrades would be needed to make it functional. The report did not assess the economic impacts or costs and benefits of the proposed line, Wirt said.
“That was a feasibility study. The purpose of it was only to determine if the route was operationally and technically feasible,” he said. “And it did that; it served its purpose. But that study also says that more work needs to be done to refine the findings from the study and to reevaluate [it] basically. So its purpose was not to determine the cost or the benefit, only whether or not it’s technically feasible.”
This once-in-a-generation funding will only be available for a few more years and, he added, not applying for free federal funding was inexcusable.
“Passenger rail is not controversial,” Wirt said. “Everybody we talked to wants to have the service, we just can’t get anybody to move. We can’t get our legislature and governor interested enough to take some action. And there’s all this money available. It’s just negligence, that we don’t take advantage of this opportunity, because it may never happen again. Who knows what’s going to happen in the next administration? But this money is going to run out in three and a half years from right now. And that’s not much time — some of these rail projects take decades to complete.”
While retrofitting the Stampede Pass line, which is owned by BNSF and currently used for a limited amount of freight shipping, would require significant capital costs, Wirt and Hamilton say that efforts would be worth it and lead to greater economies of scale with potential for increased freight capacity. Amtrak would also be able to use the revamped route for its own long-distance lines.
Currently, Amtrak only has one line between Seattle to Spokane through Stevens Pass, which runs once a day. The long-distance route, which connects from Seattle to Chicago, is also inconvenient, departing westbound from Spokane at 3 a.m., with the eastbound train arriving in the city after midnight. Because it’s a nationwide line, it has less reliability, often arriving hours late.
The new Stampede Pass line would offer more frequency to not only Seattle-Spokane travelers but also communities along the way in Central and Eastern Washington. One difficulty is crossing the Cascade mountains, which adds to the travel time, with an estimated end-to-end trip lasting seven to eight hours.
AAWA advocates said that, while a new east-west line wouldn’t replace all the existing ground or air travelers, it would offer a convenient option for those who want to lower their greenhouse gas emissions or don’t wish to navigate snowy passes.
Hamilton added that the new line would be a game changer for residents of the Yakama Nation and other communities along the route.
“Our friends at the Yakama Nation are very interested in creating essentially a commuter service,” he said. “On the reservation in the Yakama Nation, there’s very, very poor transportation options.
“So they would like to see a train service that would be run frequently, that would allow their folks to get to medical care and the other sorts of things that they need in Spokane and Seattle and the other places that they need to go,” Hamilton said.
At the end of the day, AAWA members hope that WSDOT and state government leaders join other states such as Ohio, Idaho and Oregon in proposing more ambitious plans for an integrated state-wide and regional passenger rail system. But they warn that policymakers don’t have a lot of time to waste, because the influx of federal infrastructure dollars will run out. They hope that government leaders will start translating their pro-environment rhetoric into action.
“The governor says all the appropriate things about the green future and so on, which we’re very much in favor of,” Hamilton said. “In fact, if you talk to the [Washington] Secretary of Transportation, Roger Millar, he talks about the fact that it makes no sense to be putting more money into highways, because [of] their diminishing returns, and he’s right about that, too. So there are some opportunities that the state is missing out on, and that’s what we’re trying to change.”
Read more of the Mar. 15-21, 2023 issue.