Oregon urged to join planning for high-speed rail

adba image

Two former top federal officials — Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood and Oregon Rep. Peter DeFazio — urged Oregon legislators to get the state involved in planning for high-speed rail in the Cascadia corridor connecting Eugene, Portland, Seattle and Vancouver, Canada.

Most of the corridor is within Washington state. But Portland and Seattle are now connected by six daily round-trip trains operated by Amtrak Cascades service and funded by transportation agencies in the two states. Two daily round-trip trains connect Seattle with Vancouver, and Portland with Eugene. (Excluded is the Coast Starlight, Amtrak’s long-distance service between Seattle and Los Angeles.)

LaHood and DeFazio spoke at a Jan. 12 meeting of the Oregon Legislature’s Joint Committee on Transportation, which has no specific request for funding.

LaHood was a Republican U.S. representative from Illinois — and a colleague of DeFazio on the House Transportation Committee — before Democratic President Barack Obama appointed him to lead the federal Department of Transportation in 2009. LaHood stepped down in 2013.

Under LaHood, his agency awarded $8 billion in grants — the largest amount up to that time — for various rail improvement and high-speed rail projects. The Washington State Department of Transportation got $800 million in 2010 for various joint projects with Burlington Northern Santa Fe (BNSF), which operates the freight routes and the tracks Amtrak uses in Washington state. Its latest bid for another $800 million was rejected, but the state agency got federal money for more planning for both high-speed rail and existing rail improvements.

The Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act, which bears DeFazio’s name as lead sponsor and which President Joe Biden signed in 2021, authorizes $1.2 trillion for public works spending over the next few years. Although much of it was for the renewal of federal highway and bridge spending authority, about half ($550 billion) is for new projects.

Under Biden, the federal agency has released $8.2 billion for construction on 10 projects and $16.4 billion for corridor identification and development on 25 projects. Among the national projects underway or in planning are rail between Las Vegas and Southern California, and between Los Angeles and San Francisco, though the latter has had cost overruns and has been scaled back.

‘Do not be dissuaded’

La Hood said: “If you have your act together — which I believe you do, because you have been working on it so long — you need to continue to forge ahead, have strong leadership, and stay in touch with the U.S. Department of Transportation. There is no reason for this project not to proceed and be successful.”

“Do not be dissuaded by the naysayers,” he added. “There are people who do not believe in funding rail. But this is the next generation of transportation. We spent a lot of money on roads and bridges. Now, in this generation, it’s time to begin to spend this enormous amount of money on a project like Cascadia to get it underway.”

DeFazio, a Democrat from Springfield, retired from Congress in 2022 after 36 years, the last four as Transportation Committee chairman. Three decades earlier, under another federal transportation law, the Cascadia rail corridor between Eugene and Vancouver, Canada, was among those designated as nationally significant.

“In the intervening decades, Oregon has not made any significant effort to deliver on the potential or promise. That needs to be rectified,” DeFazio said.

“It is a fraction of the cost of expanding Interstate 5 to deal with congestion. Providing a higher-speed rail option is less expensive and the estimates are that we will reduce congestion without expanding the highway. Oregon needs to get in the game. We need to show that we want to participate in Cascadia. We want to know whether it is possible to extend high speed to Eugene, or in the alternative, to develop a higher speed.”

Lawmaker: Improve existing service

State Rep. Nancy Nathanson, D-Eugene, said the state’s emphasis should be on the latter in the 110-mile corridor between Portland and Eugene. She said that most studies have concluded that true high-speed rail (186 mph or faster) would require more than what Oregon and Washington can afford, even if there were federal participation.

“We need better passenger rail,” she said. “I’ve used the mantra: More, better, faster. We need more options, more times per day, better on-time performance and faster speeds. We do not need ultra high speed rail to drastically improve the situation for Oregonians.

“I am concerned that if all we are studying and putting our money on is ultra high-speed rail, this could get tangled up for years in litigation because it would require massive acquisitions of new rights of way, use of eminent domain and probably legal wrangling. We could be putting our money into something that would take decades before it is completed, rather than making improvements in something we could see in as quick as four or five years.”

According to Oregon Department of Transportation figures, Amtrak ridership was 91,518 in 2022, almost back to the pre-pandemic level of 103,185 in 2019. (Amtrak ran a single daily round-trip train between Portland and Eugene for 13 months, from April 2020 through May 2021.)

Oregon has had one daily round-trip Amtrak train between the cities since 1994, and added a second in 2000.

Improvements on the tracks now used by Amtrak Cascades require cooperation from the major freight lines, BNSF in Washington state and Union Pacific in Oregon. Canadian National Railways is in charge of the relatively short segment that runs from the U.S. border to Vancouver.

Both DeFazio and LaHood said high-speed rail does not preclude less extensive improvements on other rail segments.

“You are well within your right to do it and the federal government will fund it,” LaHood said, referring to a project between Chicago and St. Louis that he worked on while transportation secretary. “All you need to do is work with the freight rails to make it happen.”

‘We need to begin talking’

Lynn Peterson is president of Metro, the elected regional government that deals with transportation planning and other issues in the Portland metro area. She also briefly led the Washington State Department of Transportation, but the Washington Senate — then under Republican control — rejected Democratic Gov. Jay Inslee’s appointment of her in 2014.

Peterson said that although Portland is considered the southern terminus of the proposed high-speed rail from Seattle, there is no specific plan for where it might be.

She also urged state lawmakers to start thinking beyond current needs such as a replacement for the Interstate 5 bridge that spans the Columbia River between Portland and Vancouver, Wash. (That bridge is likely to accommodate light rail and express bus service, but not heavy rail.)

She said: “High-speed rail has the potential to not only catalyze the transformation of the Cascadia corridor by connecting major job markets, increasing international tourism and creating thousands of jobs, but also helping us reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

“We as a state need to begin thinking and talking about the future of our mega-region before we are left behind.”


Recent Blogs