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Feds' stimulus for high-speed rail is low-speed

Because of bureaucratic delays, money for high-speed rail may not reach the Northwest until fall.
The tracks at Seattle's King Street Station are to be improved with federal funds for high-speed rail.

The tracks at Seattle's King Street Station are to be improved with federal funds for high-speed rail. Washington Department of Transportation

Where's the money? That's the question many are asking as 30 states, including Washington and Oregon, await their shares of $8 billion in federal stimulus funds for development of a high-speed passenger rail system, one of President Obama's signature programs.

The simple answer is that the money is sitting at the U.S. Department of Transportation's Federal Railroad Administration (FRA), which hasn't yet settled on all the administrative and legal protocols that must be in place before the agency can write the checks. FRA spokesman Warren Flatau says it might be the end of September before the money goes out.

The high-speed rail (HSR) program would create a new generation of passenger services in 11 federally designated corridors, most of whose track is owned by private “host” railroads. President Obama personally announced the first round of program grant selections in January. Washington's share was $590 million, a good chunk of the $1.3 billion Olympia had asked for.

Nearly a year and a half after Congress passed the stimulus legislation, and with President Obama having recently showcased the launching of the 10,000th stimulus project, high-speed rail thus finds itself on a low-speed track.

“We have the resources to be able to deliver the program in place,” commented Scott Witt, state rail and marine director at the Washington Department of Transportation, in an e-mail. He added, however, that the process for getting the $590 million “requires extensive documentation and agreements to be in place prior to distribution. Many of the agreement requirements were not available at the time of the grant project selections.”

Witt oversees Washington State's sponsorship of the Amtrak Cascades service, whose trains ply the 466-mile HSR corridor between Eugene, Ore., and Vancouver, B.C. Under the HSR program, the corridor is expected — one of these days — to host trains traveling at up to 110 mph. They would make the Seattle-Portland traverse in two and a half hours, an hour faster than today.

Witt said that a finalized list of the projects to be bankrolled by the federal grant remains a work in progress. A working list includes the passenger cars for a new train and an assortment of track upgrades from Seattle south to Vancouver, Wash.

Oregon won $8 million in the January sweepstakes, a tiny fraction of its $2.3 billion request, and is now waiting just as Washington is. Idaho, which has no designated HSR routes, received no award.

Five states have in fact gotten ahead of the pack, receiving checks in May for relatively small projects whose regulatory threshold was easier to reach. Those outlays represented only about 1% of the $8 billion pot, however.

Asked to explain the slow pace, Flatau says that other federal agencies, such as the Federal Highway Administration and Federal Transit Administration, have well-established mechanisms for distributing federal dollars, stimulus funds included. By contrast, the FRA has historically focused on safety issues and has had to cobble together its HSR funding mechanisms from scratch.

“There's not an institutionalized process,” he says. “There are a number of things that have to happen. We need to enter into grant agreements with the state recipients of the funds. That requires negotiation.”

He places some of the responsibility for the snail's pace on state bureaucracies. “The states have to accomplish a number of things, including entering into agreements with [freight] railroads and Amtrak. The states have to have the capacity to manage these funds. All the parties need to have the institutional capacity — some would say the intellectual capacity — to move this thing forward.”

Until recently, Flatau says, “states have not allocated resources to staff or institutionalize robust or mature rail divisions, since the focus of federal transportation investment has been overwhelmingly focused on highway development. Washington State has been a leader, certainly.”

Both Oregon's and Washington's rail divisions have provided hundreds of millions of dollars for Amtrak services and infrastructure improvements since the 1990s. In all, 15 states fund Amtrak trains.


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Comments:

Posted Wed, Jul 7, 3:16 a.m. Inappropriate

Never mind "high speed" - if we could just manage to rebuild some semblance of any real rail service in this area and country, that would be miracle enough. Probably won't happen until the oil price climbs sufficiently to put the profit back in it for the private corporations.

Posted Wed, Jul 7, 8:33 a.m. Inappropriate

From a stimulus perspective, it's actually helpful to have a lot of money still being distributed.

The rail is exciting. Even at today's slow speeds the trains fill up, and would probably still do well if they added more frequency. With the incremental speed improvements provided by this new money, and the incremental service improvements, those trains ought to fill up easily. Hopefully we'll keep improving over time.

mhays

Posted Wed, Jul 7, 1:05 p.m. Inappropriate

"Even at today's slow speeds the trains fill up" Tried to book a sleeper car to Havre, MT a few weeks ago and they were booked both ways. The cost of adding a few cars (not even engines here, just cars) should be quite low and if my experience is typical would pay back quickly. They lost ~$600 on me (minus maybe a third of that in labor and food costs they would have had to pay) - multiply that by a few more like me per day and that's serious money.

The train to Portland is competative with flight (factoring in security lines and travel to the airport). Cut a few more minutes from the route and run more trains and I know they'd get high ridership.

Posted Fri, Jul 9, 7:31 p.m. Inappropriate

While waiting the arrival of high speed rail between Seattle and Vancouver, BC, I recommend http://www.quickcoach.com . Seven summer departures per day, eight on Friday, Saturday, Sunday. Wi-Fi on board. Leaves from a location near the Space Needle. About $50 round trip. Faster than the twice daily Amtrak Cascades.

jniles

Posted Sat, Jul 10, 8:12 a.m. Inappropriate

John, sounds like an interesting service but looks like it's not any faster--about the same amount of time. For exampple, one Quick Shuttle leaves downtown Seattle at 7:05 and arrives downtown Vancouver at 11:15, while for the Cascades the times are 7:40 and 11:40. Of course either one might be delayed for a variety of reasons, but I have taken the Cascades to Vancouver without delays.

joshuadf

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