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Everett rail summit: plenty of vision, but money is still down the line

The Amtrak Cascades train passes through the Everett Station. Credit:

Congressman Rick Larsen kicked off a morning-long “rail summit” in Everett Tuesday (June 7) by urging transit advocates to throw their support behind a bill coming before lawmakers in the next few weeks — and by celebrating the federal money Washington state already has won.

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. 

The interurban idea has been the subject of several studies over the last half-dozen years. Cascadia is “suggesting,” Agnew said, that the state launch the service by buying six of the same diesel multiple units — self-propelled rail coaches — to be built by Japan’s Nippon Sharyo for SMART. The manufacturer’s contract with SMART allows other public-transportation providers to buy the same “incredibly inexpensive” equipment, Agnew added in an interview after the meeting.

“There’s a window of opportunity here,” he said, in the context of constrained funding for transportation and public services generally. “We’re asking the state to think about getting into the regional rail business with new money.” He alluded to the possibility of a new transportation tax package, supported by the Legislature’s transportation committee chairs, Judy Clibborn (D-Mercer Island) and Mary Margaret Haugen (D-Camano Island), that voters may be looking at in 2012.

SMART was represented at the meeting by planning manager John Nemeth and board member Debora Fudge, and what the start-up provider is doing north of San Francisco served as a point of reference for what Puget Sound transit providers could be doing north of Seattle. In their remarks, Nemeth and Fudge focused on how SMART is turning its 70 miles of abandoned railroad into a multimodal corridor, with freight and passenger trains running alongside a bicycle-pedestrian pathway through suburban communities choking on automotive traffic. Nemeth put the total price tag for the system’s 2014 launch at a bargain-basement $9.9 million per mile.

Agnew’s Cascadia Center has championed the rail-with-trail concept for the Eastside line, whose fate has remained uncertain since the BNSF Railway divested itself of the 42 miles of track in late 2009. Many bicyclists have envisioned the railroad’s level grade as a bicycle trail par excellence — once the rails are ripped out — while rail advocates have pointed to the difficulties of putting the rails back once they are removed, should the need for commuter rail grow with the region’s population. At the Everett meeting, Snohomish County public works director Steve Thompson and Snohomish Mayor Karen Guzak were among those joining Cascadia’s call for coexistence between rail and foot power on the Eastside route.

Steve Schweigerdt of the D.C.-based Rails to Trails Conservancy’s San Francisco office, reported that 166 rail-with-trail corridors have been successfully developed nationwide; trail users walk and pedal alongside trains moving at up to 150 mph, with separation between pathway and rails sometimes as little as a few feet. Fudge noted that local bicycle coalitions had provided the “boots on the ground” in the 2008 political campaign that won SMART its funding through a sales-tax increment.

Collaboration with bicycle advocates has, by contrast, been slow in coming on the Eastside, as some from the bicycling community have called for a trail that would replace, rather than supplement, the rail infrastructure. Reportedly only one of the Eastside bicycle advocates invited to the Everett meeting attended, but several came to a session at Google Kirkland and an evening reception at a Kirkland hotel, and it appears the train-bike tension may be nearing an end.

At Google, Agnew reported, the bicycle advocates on hand “flocked” to Schweigerdt after his presentation, to get briefed in detail about how to implement the rail-with-trail idea.

“Lots of business cards were exchanged. For us, that was a breakthrough — having the rails-to-trails people saying the wave of the future is rails with trails.

“They want to work with us,” he added, referring to the Seattle-based Cascade Bicycle Club, formerly cast as an opponent of the “coexistence option.” The bicycle club could not immediately be reached for comment.

Disclosure: C.B. Hall has performed work for the Cascadia Center.

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