Frank over at Orphan Road has been keeping track of the $15B Amtrak bill that just passed both the US House and Senate with a veto-proof majority. A lot of this bill is for grants, so this could mean something for Seattle.
The first thing the bill does is ensures Amtrak can operate for the next five years without fear of losing funding. Amtrak wasn’t designed with a consistent funding program, so they’re unable to issue bonds like Sound Transit does – they’d have no way of paying them back, because they can’t levy any taxes. Basically, this means Amtrak service gets worse every year as their equipment ages and the small portion of track they actually own slowly becomes the worse for wear. This bill will buy Amtrak some new equipment, and it funds some capital upgrades so they can improve service in the Northeast Corridor, the high speed line between Washington DC, Philadelphia, NYC, and Boston.
Some background before we go further: In Washington, we have a partnership between the Washington State DOT (WSDOT) and Amtrak to provide more service than Amtrak would normally be able to fund. I’ve never been clear on exactly how the costs are split up (Brian might be willing to comment to that), but the state owns most of the trains themselves and pays for most of the service we have. This partnership service is a route called Amtrak Cascades.
Cascades currently runs four daily round trips from Seattle to Portland, one Seattle to Vancouver BC, and one Seattle to Bellingham – although that last one will be extended to Vancouver as well sometime in the next year. The Oregon DOT also funds two round trips from Portland to Eugene. In 2007, the Washington State routes got more than 675,000 riders, the vast majority of those riding between Seattle and Portland.
When there’s bad traffic or a big border delay, this service is already often faster than driving. It takes 3h30m from Seattle to Portland, and 3h55m from Seattle to Vancouver. This really isn’t consistently competitive, though – so WSDOT has a nominally 20 year plan of incremental upgrades to get Seattle-Portland down to 2h30m, and Seattle-Vancouver down to 2h45m. This comes from a lot of small projects, and a few big ones, like building some new segments of passenger-only track on which we could operate at 110mph, instead of the current 79 (and often slower).
Back to the bill: There are two types of grants this bill offers that could affect our service very positively. The first is that it offers grants to develop state passenger corridors. Guess what Amtrak Cascades is? This bill provides $2.5 billion in matching grants, where the federal share can be up to 80%, for state corridor projects. The other type of grant is for the 11 corridors in which the federal government thinks high speed rail is a good idea – these total $1.75 billion. Guess what kind of corridor Amtrak Cascades runs in? Now, we might not get a penny of this money, because the California High Speed Rail Project has a $10 billion bond issue going before voters this November, and their plan is very competitive, but there’s a good chance we’ll get some of this money to improve intercity service.