Speaking at a gathering of some 120 elected officials, administrators and interest-group representatives, Larsen praised the high-speed rail initiative (HSR) that has thus far brought Washington state $781 million in federal funding for improvements to Amtrak's Cascades service. The sum includes $161 million refused by three other states whose governors sent the money back to the feds, calling the program a waste of money.
“If Ohio, Wisconsin and Florida don't want the money, we'll take the money,” Larsen (D-2nd) said, to warm applause from the clearly pro-rail audience gathered at the Hansen Conference Center for the meeting, titled "On Track: The Future of Rail in Snohomish County." The session, hosted by Snohomish County Executive Aaron Reardon and Seattle's Cascadia Center for Regional Development, formed part of a day-long program of rail-oriented events, with two subsequent gatherings taking place in Kirkland.
Larsen, whose district encompasses northwest Washington, including much of Snohomish County, discussed a six-year surface-transportation reauthorization bill about to come before the House of Representatives as the focal point for advocacy efforts, as the recession's economics and politics cut into support for transit across the country.
Interviewed as he left the hall, Larsen said that the House Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure, on which he sits, would begin looking within three weeks at a bill authorizing some $210 billion for surface transportation. The sum, he said, “sounds like a lot, until you spread it over 50 states — then it's not much.” He compared it to the $300 billion in the last six-year authorization, which recently expired. The Obama administration has meanwhile been seeking an authorization of $556 billion.
Asked about the $50 billion or so that the Obama Administration has sought for HSR as part of the authorization, Larsen commented drily, “You'll have to get back to me on that.” Republicans in Congress recently stripped all HSR funding from the Obama request for the current federal budget.
Subsequent speakers and panelists addressed the meeting on such things as the addition of a third Amtrak trip between Seattle and Vancouver, B.C.; expansion of Sound Transit's light-rail system into Snohomish County; co-development of rail lines and bicycle trails; and the potential of the so-called Eastside rail corridor, which runs from Snohomish to Renton, for both passenger and freight rail. The speakers included Sound Transit CEO Joni Earl, Snohomish Mayor Karen Guzak, Cascadia director Bruce Agnew, and spokespeople for a California rail-with-trail project being developed by Sonoma Marin Area Rail Transit (SMART).
The political agenda needed little further clarification once Earl, prefacing her remarks, noted that she had driven up to the meeting from her home in Tacoma, taking two hours and 10 minutes for the I-5 slog rather than using Pierce Transit and her own agency's buses — which would have taken roughly two hours and 52 minutes and gotten her to Everett 50 minutes late.
Reacting to the pro-transit tenor of the proceedings, and perhaps to Earl's comment, an audience member subsequently asked how many people had taken public transit to the meeting — no one volunteered an affirmative — and decried transit as accounting for no more than a tiny segment of the nation's travel. “How are we going to partner with cars instead of making this look like a coalition against cars?” the man asked.
From the speakers' table, Everett Transit's Tom Hingson responded that transportation planning's idea was “a balance of choices.” The growth Snohomish County is seeking, he said, “is not going to happen with more roads.”
The speakers did not lack visions of what Snohomish County and the rest of the Puget Sound region might expect instead of those roads. Earl said Sound Transit's light-rail trains would reach Lynnwood by 2023 and Everett by 2030, while Agnew and Cascadia consultant Tom Jones proposed a regional, “interurban” train between Whatcom County and Everett.
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