With the March 15 launch of a $22.7 million project to make Seattle's King Street Station less vulnerable to earthquakes, the Washington State Department of Transportation has embarked on the start of a long series of passenger rail upgrades to be underwritten by federal high-speed rail (HSR) outlays. Unanimity does not prevail, however, on how some of the money could be best spent.
Coming more than two years after the first federal HSR awards were announced at a media event headlined by President Barack Obama and Vice President Joe Biden, the King Street event also attested to a peculiarity of the high-speed rail program. Because the funding conduit, the Federal Railroad Administration (FRA), had never before doled out such a series of grants and most of the grants affected private property — the railroads on whose tracks Amtrak runs — the grants' processing dragged on and on. Rail advocates nervously wondered if the rightward-shifting political climate would lead Congress to recoup funds already awarded but not contractually committed to states.
As it turned out, no Congressional takebacks occurred, but the HSR program as such has not been funded for the last two federal fiscal years, and chances for its revival look dim. On the other hand, stimulus-funded jobs that Americans thought were already history are just now being filled to improve rail service in Washington state and elsewhere.
The term "high speed," defined by the FRA as a sustained speed of 110 mph or higher, is meanwhile less heard than it was three years ago, when President Obama put $8 billion in high-speed funding into his 2009 stimulus legislation. The discourse has now largely shifted to “higher-speed rail” and “high-performance rail.” Notably, FRA administrator Joseph Szabo used the latter term in his remarks at the March 15 event.
HSR's political capital lasted long enough to get the Evergreen State quite a pot of money, however — $791.6 million, out of the $10.1 billion awarded from the federal program. Only California and Illinois got bigger slices of the pie. Oregon, Washington's partner in the Pacific Northwest HSR corridor project, got less than $20 million, after the feds turned down a $1.8-billion proposal from Salem to transform the corridor's Portland-Eugene segment into a very high-speed route of the sort depicted by artists' renderings of trains blurring by.
Washington's millions will finance all or part of 20 major capital investments. They range from a railyard bypass in Vancouver to a new siding in Blaine for customs inspections. They also include eight new locomotives and a new trainset.
Here something of a second windfall may materialize because of recent events in Wisconsin, where the state government has refused to fund a long-term maintenance facility for two sets of Talgo trains purchased by the state and similar to those Washington has long used. The decision may force Wisconsin either to store the trains, which are now in testing, at a cost of $739,400 yearly, or to sell them, possibly at a loss. Washington could, in theory, buy them.
Ron Pate, rail operations manager at WSDOT's Rail and Marine Office, noted that the Badger State's trains would not, as built, meet federal “Buy America” requirements because of the use of foreign components. “We would need waivers from those requirements," Pate said. "We would certainly entertain [the possibility] if we could get waivers. That would be a major challenge.”
A Wisconsin Department of Transportation spokesman declined to comment on the possibility that the trains could wind up being sold.
The Pacific Northwest corridor, which stretches from Eugene to Vancouver, B.C., will in any event soon see what might be termed a surplus of rolling stock, as the Oregon Department of Transportation will be taking delivery of two Talgo sets, but without any plans for an immediate increase in service. The cars will become part of the corridor's equipment pool — which has proven adequate as things stand. Pate said that WSDOT “might use one of those,” but that discussions with Oregon on a plan for the pool's future management were still in progress.
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