AAWA: Advocates Call for Amtrak Expansion to Facilitate Economic Recovery and Improve Environmental Stewardship

Passenger rail advocacy group All Aboard Washington (AAWA) has called upon the Washington State Legislature to provide funding to the Washington State Department of Transportation (WSDOT) to implement existing plans for an expanded statewide passenger rail network. Restoring the full Amtrak Cascades passenger train schedule, and expanding Cascades service to Central and Eastern Washington, are critical components of statewide economic recovery and development.

AAWA, which has represented the state’s rail passengers for over forty years, believes that now is the time to implement previously-planned expansions of the state-supported Amtrak Cascades passenger rail service. The ongoing budgetary, mobility, and climate crises all demand commitment to proactive solutions that foster stable economic recovery from the pandemic while furthering Washington’s efforts to fight global climate change.

With targets for reductions of vehicle trips, greenhouse gas emissions, and traffic fatalities all coming due over the next decade, immediate legislative actions should be taken to sustain our state’s financial solvency and our citizens’ quality of life.

Why the Cascades?

The Amtrak Cascades is an established, essential public transportation service. In 2019, the Cascades service provided nearly 829,000 annual trips as an alternative to driving and flying along the I-5 corridor. Washington has invested hundreds of millions of dollars in local, state, and federal funds toward creating and maintaining the Cascades.

Our State has included passenger rail in its transportation vision for over thirty years. Cascades service improvements were included in the East-West passenger rail expansion goals promulgated by the 1993 legislature (RCW 47.79.020), and in WSDOT’s 2006 Long-Range Plan (LRP) for Amtrak Cascades.

2021 Legislation Needed

Legislative leaders plan to focus its 2021 session on a small number of priorities, including economic recovery and climate change. AAWA’s members ask the Legislature to pass economically-responsible legislation that will further these goals.

Immediate Restoration and Improvements to Amtrak Cascades

Washingtonians are traveling again, and they can’t use a train that isn’t there. Amtrak Cascades must return to its pre-pandemic capacity and schedule. This will help Cascades accommodate travelers as safely as possible, provide employment to workers who have fallen on hard times, and allow the state to meet its trip reduction, climate, and safety goals. WSDOT is short on passenger train equipment and has few viable options. This session, the Legislature should approve:

  • Funding for additional passenger train equipment;
  • Restoration of pre-pandemic frequencies with service north of Seattle temporarily terminating in Blaine or Bellingham; and
  • Restoration of Point Defiance Bypass service and additional Seattle-Portland trips.

Passenger Rail Planning and Cost Sharing

The Legislature must also turn its attention toward the future. Passenger rail needs planning and operating resources similar to highways, ferries, and airports. AAWA asks the Legislature to support:

  • Comprehensive Amtrak Cascades and East-West rail corridor studies;
  • A cost-benefit analysis of the East-West rail corridor serving Spokane and Boise;
  • Regional Rail Commissions (RRCs) that improve competitiveness for federal grants;
  • County Rail Districts (CRDs), including for Kittitas County; and
  • Maintain cooperation with the Oregon Department of Transportation (ODOT).

Legislation in 2022 and Beyond

In 2022, the Legislature should provide the funding needed to implement WSDOT’s 2006 LRP for Amtrak Cascades. That plan envisioned:

  • Four daily Seattle-Vancouver, B.C. trips in 2 hours and 37 minutes; and
  • Thirteen daily Seattle-Portland trips in 2 hours and 30 minutes.

AAWA believes that a timely realization of this LRP will improve mobility across the Northwest and increase the utility of future connecting services, like the proposed East-West train service between Seattle and Spokane. We will continue to work with the Legislature in 2022 and beyond to fund and implement a statewide passenger rail network that will serve communities of all sizes, and create a solid foundation for ultra-high-speed corridors throughout the Northwest.

President Harvey Bowen said, “Frequent passenger train services will continue to be essential because they provide safe, green, and convenient transportation. All Aboard Washington believes our state needs to support economic recovery by resuming the complete Cascades service schedule, allowing us to reach the approximately one million annual trips mark that the planned service levels provide for. We are committed to advocacy for a return to pre-pandemic services, and to holding WSDOT and the Legislature to their goals and plans with a minimum of delay despite the impact of SARS-CoV-2 on our state.”

This is a cross-post and originally appeared on All Aboard Washington’s advocacy blog.

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All Aboard Washington (Guest Contributor)

For over forty years, member-supported All Aboard Washington (AAWA) has promoted better passenger and freight rail service in the Pacific Northwest. We champion safe, reliable, frequent, competitive, and convenient passenger rail services that meet the needs of all Washingtonians. We are especially active supporters of intercity passenger rail service and intermodal connections to local transit.

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Daniel Thompson

I am not sure people are traveling more yet on public transportation like trains, but in time should return.

I just don’t see the legislature investing in the Cascade run as a tool for economic recovery. I would rather see those limited funds go into local transit. Generally economic infrastructure stimulus means roads and highways because of the jobs and prevailing wages, and roads need to be maintained.

I also don’t see Portland as an economic engine in the future.

The Seattle-Portland train is a good lesson. Ridership is a tiny fraction of total trips. The cost isn’t better than driving, especially since the business traveler can deduct 57.5 cents per mile compared to deducting the train fair, and you need transportation at both ends, which can be expensive even if within the core city. The drive down I-5 is pleasant depending on congestion. Just long enough, unlike Spokane which is just a bit too far.

Flying used to be an option, but with airport security there is no time savings although some plane fares are competitive with the train. Like the train you still need transportation on both ends — if the train trip is for business it is unlikely the rider will use the bus on either end — although parking in each city core can be expensive.

The Seattle to Portland train is fine for the experience of riding a train as part of a leisure trip or if you don’t drive. But it is the perfect distance when flying isn’t worth it and driving is more convenient and cost effective than flying and certainly ether train. The trip numbers prove that.

I am sure every advocacy group will be lobbying the legislature claiming their favorite project will lead to economic stimulus post pandemic, but I think those groups will learn the legislature has a lot less funding than they think. 2019 was the year to lobby for more train funding, before Metro and ST took huge hits.

Tony77

“The Amtrak Cascades is an established, essential public transportation service. In 2019, the Cascades service provided nearly 829,000 annual trips as an alternative to driving and flying along the I-5 corridor.”

I believe in rail as a future modality, but when you put it into context this current contribution is minuscule. The I5 CRC carries 300,000 vehicles per day, with somewhere greater than 1.0 passengers per vehicle. I know there are multiple reasons why that’s not an apples-to-apples comparison, but understand that 829,000 trips per year is almost trivial. Most WA, OR, and BC residents have never used the service and wouldn’t notice even indirect impacts if it ceased tomorrow. This current state reflects decades of underinvestment over a network designed to carry freight, and do it slowly – not passengers, or quickly. Think what could done be with the type of investment other countries have long prioritized. That’s the way to pitch this.

asdf2

I have always thought of intercity rail as an economic development tool, not a climate change tool. Rather than treating the number of trips between Seattle and Portland as a fixed quantity and treat the train as replacing cars, the train is mostly about inducing additional trips from people who don’t like to drive such long distances, many of which, without Amtrak, would simply not happen – especially at times of day that require entering or leaving a city on one end during rush hour. These additional trips provide economic benefits to both regions when people eat at restaurants, stay at hotels, and visit tourist attractions. Amtrak also provides a lifeline to small-town communities such as Centrailia, which would otherwise have no public transportation options to reach the nearest large city.

In terms of climate, I agree with you, that Amtrak doesn’t do much, but that doesn’t mean it’s not worth running. The economic benefits of providing options to travel without having to drive for 3 hours or get stuck in traffic are real and worth pursuing (at least, once COVID gets under control).