GenePoon on Trainorders.com reports that WSDOT has cut the Passenger Rail office. What this exactly means in terms in securing HSR funding is unknown but I have a feeling this is going to show a instability with us.

In a reorganization (read that as “reduction in force”) at Washington State Dept. of Transportation, several key positions handling passenger rail, including the Cascades services, were eliminated yesterday, Friday the 13th. The state effectively no longer has a passenger rail section. Operational staff were also axed and remaining managers will now be responsible for both freight and passenger projects.

All I can do is speculate what this could mean but it doesn’t appear good, especially with such a huge push for passenger rail here.

This comes around as WSDOT, ODOT, and Amtrak celebrates 10 years of successful service for the Amtrak Cascades.

56 Replies to “WSDOT RIFs cut passenger rail staffing”

  1. remaining managers will now be responsible for both freight and passenger projects.

    So who/how many are left? ST will probably take more of a lead role in projects that it is supplying funding for. How many managers and staff did the State have dedicated to passenger service?

  2. Several, I do believe the overall office at 10-20 employees.

    ST will not take over stuff for Amtrak or Amtrak Cascades. That is out of their scope of work. They can do anything up until Lakewood and North to Everett but that is all.

    This puts a major damper into securing HSR funding because it shows the state is unstable and not serious about HSR funding. The people that made the long-range plan and mid-range plan have all been released. When the FRA and USDOT needs to ask questions in regards to future service, there is no one available that has those answers anymore.

    That equals out to a lost of confidence and 95% chance of losing any/all funding for any HSR program or to improve the Cascades system.

    1. Is the outlook for securing Federal funding for improving the Cascades system really that dire with these cuts?

      A few things still in our favor I thing are we’ve been at this for 10 years and other than the NEC I believe we’re the only corridor with “shovel ready” projects.

  3. Brian, that’s a good point! The timing is strange. I think, it could be a setup too. First. we don’t know if its 100% true. But if it is, it may be a tactic that if funds do come through, additional jobs would be saved and various folks at state and federal can take credit.

    Also, there may be a need to reduce costs at all levels, not only for RAIL. it may be 1 person, or 10 persons. so it’s more important to find out how many percent of staff will be cut.

    So I think its too early to jump off the 20th floor over this. Does anyone know when the annoucement will take place on the HSR and Amtrak funding monies??

  4. http://www.wsdot.wa.gov/Freight/contact.htm

    This list appears to be pre cuts. It appears though that most of the passenger releated projects are or were already assigned to personnel that will remain as they have other freight projects assigned.

    If you look at the names under Passenger Rail Administration most are also listed under one of the other departments.

    ST will be or is the lead on the Pt Defiance bypass right? That’s a major portion of what needs to be done now and part of the stimulus money. I don’t see this as being a show stopper for Federal funds.

  5. ST is only the lead for D Street to Lakewood Station. The WSDOT segment would add another track for Amtrak use from 66th Street to Nisqually.

    ST needs funding from WSDOT to complete the entire project.

  6. I don’t think WSDOT is THAT stupid…are they? Surely the remaining managers know more about the Cascades corridor than we assume so they can secure funding.

  7. Well the more I learn about the stuff going on, I can honestly say the following:

    I fully believe WashDOT will seek to dismantle the Amtrak Cascades program. Why? These people that were let go were instrumental in securing what we have today in the Amtrak Cascades program. The program relied and depended on these people to continue to make the program grow and be a successful intercity rail system between Eugene, Oregon and Vancouver, BC.

    For Washington State DOT to suddenly and without warrant, dismantle a growing and successful program is ludicrous. I could understand it if the program was failing, which is isn’t, with over 6 million passengers carried since 1999, the program itself with the lost of these vital people will surely damage the reputation of the program.

    Sound Transit CAN NOT do anything in regards to High Speed Rail. They only manage Sounder Commuter Rail between Everett and Lakewood, nothing more, nothing less.

    The remaining managers that are left over are only for an oversight. These managers may or may recommend the dismantling of the program entirely. This could of course be only a rough guess and an assumption but when it comes time to seek any type of funding. The people that were around and that has gotten the Cascades its various amount of money are now all gone and there is nobody left at WashDOT that has the experience or knowledge to answer the questions that the FRA and USDOT will seek to acquire the funding an increase in speed and reliable service.

    The people that have spent 18 years of hard work to get to this point has effectively lost everything they were trying to achieve with this corridor; establish a maximum 18 daily trains between Seattle and Portland and 4 trains between Seattle and Portland running at a maximum of 110mph and run times less than 3 hours.

    While in theory, this could continue onward, with the information they have now, the likelihood that it will is now slim to none. Over the course of time, any government agency that dismantles their passenger rail division ends their service within 2 to 5 years.

    All I can say is that I hope I am wrong and the information I have gotten, is also wrong and things will continue to go as-is but this move at this point in the game, will shoot WashDOT in the foot, hard, in any future attempt to seek Federal Funding for any HSR project.

    Now would be a very, very, good time to contact Olympia and the Senators to ensure the service is remained intact.

  8. It looks like the knowledge is fairly well distributed. All of the 14 people listed as part of “Passenger Rail Administration” are also listed as part of at least one other department. I see three people that were listed only under Passenger and Marine. Six more that are Passenger, Marine and Capital Project Management but that includes the only Environmental Manager for WSDOT rail. The remainder all are listed under the Freight systems.

    There’s really no secret about what needs to get done. It’s been known for a decade and the studies are well documented. The question I guess is does the remaining staff have the time and desire to follow through with it.

  9. True, all of the information is out there but the formulas is the issue for the FRA and USDOT. They want people who actually know what they are doing for rail management, not some one who will make snap guesses. That is why most States have a passenger rail division.

    This is also why for example, Amtrak California, has done such an incredible job of expanding their trains. For a long while, they have only had 4 trains and currently running 12 trains a day. After they finish with the Sacramento Station improvements, will increase to almost 20 trains a day.

    They’re entire rail department has been aggressive in seeking what they want and need to improve the service. WashDOT either doesn’t care or has stopped caring. The Governors budget allows for current service and expansion of service.

    A lot of things needs to change but a strong reversal in getting those people their jobs back should be #1 to ensure we keep our funding with the federal government.

    Since Sound Transit and WSDOT/Amtrak has had a partnership together, it is still possible that a ripple-effect can happen. What this means is that whatever current funding we have gotten could be stripped or terminated. This case happened in Texas when the they did a similar move. What funding was issued to them was the last of it and it has taken several years to restore that trust back into the Government.

    1. The Governor must have know about this, and was doubtless involved in the decision making process. It is she who must now be held accountable for this decision. The legislature can attempt to fund the lost positions; the citizens of Washington have a method available should they opt to print and circulate petitions for her removal from office.

      1. Unfortunately recall is very difficult in WA and her strange moves in the past 6 months while in many cases are examples of her “not doing her job” aren’t likely enough to recall.

        Writing your representatives in Olympia is probably more productive. I’d also recommend writing Sens. Cantwell and Murray as well as your Congressperson. Given Sen. Murray’s committee assignments and her past support of rail I’m sure she will point out to the State that they risk losing substantial amounts of Federal passenger rail funding with this move.

        Are there any companies, union, or other interest groups that support Cascades? Perhaps they need to be informed of this move as well.

        The governor and WSDOT seem to really have it in for rail in general. Between cutting the passenger rail office, deferring a bunch of WSDOT projects for improving Cascades service (especially Pt. Defiance bypass), and deferring funding for I-90 two way HOV they’ve done a number on passenger rail and Sound Transit. It almost makes me wonder if there is some powerful interest group who has an interest in hurting passenger rail and rail transit.

      2. That powerful interest group is the highway/gasoline/construction lobby working together sometimes, in parallel at others. They have been THE force working against rail for the last 3/4 of a century. This is not news , and all readers of this and other pro-transit blogs should by now be well read and conversant on this history.

  10. Depending on how much and what kind of experience these people had at WSDOT, they might stay at WSDOT in other positions. If so, resurrecting a passenger rail staff might not be too difficult if new funding becomes available.

    Looking at the passenger rail capital projects, this RIF isn’t really surprising.

    * Pt Defiance (WSDOT portion) – delayed until 2015 because of funding

    * Kelso-Martin Bluff – no construction $$ until 2013-15, environmental documentation complete by June 2009

    * Everett Curve Realignment – permitting nearly complete, no money for construction

    * Stanwood station – construction starting this month, construction on the siding starts later this spring

    With most of the passenger rail projects suspended due to funding or going to construction, I imagine several of the people on the passenger rail staff don’t have any projects left to pay their salaries. Many WSDOT positions have project-based funding. WSDOT may not have had much choice but to RIF several passenger rail positions. Don’t underestimate the degree to which the Legislature controls WSDOTs funding priorities.

    1. I think Brian has correctly stated the outcome this action. The brain trust, sole, and energy of our rail program has been let go at a time when all the projects you just mentioned are on the table for federal funding within the next few months.
      If Washington State is unwilling to staff a passenger rail office, and our governor and key elected officials continually remain silent on supporting the Cascade Corridor trains, then the message to USDOT is loud and clear. Don’t waste your time and money on WA state.
      I find ‘black fridays’ announcement of gutting our poster child rail program to be one of the most short sighted decisions this state has ever made.
      HSR saves fuel, polutes less, and could have been a self sustaining travel mode. The feds would have been willing to pay for 100% of it, and we’re going to piss away this opportunity.

  11. Now is a good time for Washington to add a gasoline tax exclusively for transit use. Even people who don’t use transit will benefit from having fewer cars on the road. Adding a few cents per gallon now while gas prices are relatively low won’t hurt anyone too much and could save many transit projects.

  12. The state constitution requires all gas tax funds to be spent on highways. That restriction would need to be removed before you could spend any gas tax on transit.

  13. >The state constitution requires all gas tax funds to be spent on highways. That restriction would need to be removed before you could spend any gas tax on transit.

    In other words, it could be done. And it should be done. Same as providing for rail expansion on the 520 should be done.

    It’s time to get creative and solve some problems rather than putting up roadblocks. We’ve got enough blocked roads already.

    1. Making such a change would require a 3/4 vote of the state legislature and a statewide vote.

      The chance of that happening would be slim to none.

  14. The gas tax is really a poor revenue choice as it is trending downward. Better to leave it to the highways and make sure transit is able to access tolls, VMT taxes, and carbon taxes.

  15. Heh, I was discussing this with my girlfriend and she thought it would be a good idea to have a porn, tobacco, and alcohol tax for rail and mass transit use.

    I don’t know the full details on Oregon’s 3 month tax but I heard it would bring in almost $15 million dollars.

  16. Just watched the TGV speed record video shot from the cab. 574 kmH. Just jaw dropping, heart pounding, and a bit frightening.
    And we can’t seem to break the 79 mph barrier, by putting cannon sized holes in our feet.

  17. Mike,

    Great video – I am always amused by how calm they are, smiling as they blaze the rail at 200+ mph.

    Being on a few cab rides in my lifetime, standing is nearly impossible for most of the right of way. I’ve heard one too many stories of people getting thrown out of their seats at track speed.

  18. I’m beginning to get the feeling we’re going to ride this baby right into the ground.

    Maybe someone out there wants to argue with me, but my appreciation is that only a very strong pull on the bit and sharp application of the spurs is going to make the DOT do anything they don’t want to do. And a move like this makes it pretty plain that rail is something they don’t want to do. With a President who can’t stop talking about HSR, a Vice-President in love with Amtrak, and Xty-billions of stimulus money on the table, it’s time to be rushing applications to completion and sending them by special messenger, not shutting down the office of rail improvements in Washington State.

    This is especially true considering our two Democratic senators and the role a ‘safe’ state like Washington plays in any Presidential campaign. I had fully expected that we would get a billion, maybe more, for corridor improvements that only awaited funding. Why wouldn’t we?

    Ha ha- why wouldn’t we? Because of the only possible thing that could derail the good news- the state DOT doesn’t want to do it.

    It would be nice to get more news indicating that my pessimism is unfounded- but I won’t be holding my breath.

  19. One thing that really bugs me is the lack of coverage about this development in either of the Seattle papers…yet. One more sign of where the paper media are going, IMHO.

    1. Business as usual for the media around here. Much excitement about the deep bore tunnel and the US$71 million for widening “free”ways, minimal coverage of Washington State Ferries crises, hardly any coverage of rail.

  20. I e-mailed all of the newspapers and tv stations in regards to this. If anyone picks it up, we’ll see.

    At least Oregon DOT is moving forward with their passenger rail program. What a shame though..what a shame.

    1. Brian,

      I hope that includes the Stranger, the Weekly and the two Public Radio stations in Seattle (KUOW/KPLU) as they seem to be the only ones interested in reporting local news anymore.

  21. From:

    http://seattletimes.nwsource.com/html/localnews/2004266393_paula07m.html

    State’s new transportation chief faces big challenges

    Her first job was engineer I, inspecting an asphalt plant in Montesano. She also worked on the survey crew for the replacement of the Hood Canal Bridge. “It was grunt work young engineers had to do,” she said.

    The benefit is that she knows a lot of the people she now bosses.

    The quid-pro-quo meter is starting to twitch!

    http://seattletimes.nwsource.com/html/localnews/2004266393_paula07m.html

  22. Time to repost this comment from the entry: Paula Hammond: State Can’t Pay For Transit

    https://seattletransitblog.com/2008/12/12/paula-hammond-state-cant-pay-for-transit/

    Comment by Zach
    2008-12-12 16:56:35
    Yes, I’m afraid it does Ted.

    This policy began as a Referendum to the People in 1944; this Battle of the Bulge era law came at a time when highways were considered the future, and suburbanization was the MO of urban planning. The state was merely trying to find a dedicated revenue stream for this new mode of transportation, and I assume the islands were able to fight for ferries to be included. Soon afterwards, the federal government started pouring massive amounts of money into the interstate highway system and similar projects….up to 90% of the total project cost.

    To say the “skids were greased” would be a gross understatement.

    I feel very strongly that it is time to change this state law, but not because it would bring any revenue boost to ST (the total pool of funds for capital transportation projects is simply too small to make a difference in a program of that size). Rather, I think it would 1)boost streetcar systems in cities and towns across the state, 2)possibly help with track improvements for commuter rail and Amtrack, and 3)perhaps most importantly, simply make the DOT agnostic on transportation mode preferences, and thus give us a willing collaborator on transportation projects that might include rail.

    If the DOT’s constitutional mandate effectively limits it to roads and ferries, then it reasons that they will hire people most familiar with roads and ferries, that the organizational culture will become centered around the two, and all other options/solutions will be ignored.

    Think what it would be like to have a DOT that comes to the table with an open mind-and key technical expertise on all transportation modes, including rail-when communities have to make decisions like those regarding the Viaduct or 520.

    And the important thing to realize is that this is not a King County problem; it’s not a metro Seattle problem. This law and its effect on the DOT is impacting communities across the state. I’ve heard that Everett at one point was considering a downtown streetcar circulator, similar with Spokane. For some reason rail seems to have an urban connotation, but we know from our own history (as well as contemporary examples in Europe and Asia) that rail works in various forms for small cities and small towns as well. Where would the City of Everett turn to for technical expertise and planning, in lieu of an “absent” DOT? The same applies to other towns, like Pullman, Yakima, Port Angeles, Wenatchee, or Gray’s Harbor…

    I think the time is right for us to fix this, once and for all.

    1. And here’s a clue to decision-making process:

      State’s new transportation chief faces big challenges

      http://seattletimes.nwsource.com/html/localnews/2004266393_paula07m.html

      [Hammond’s] first job was engineer I, inspecting an asphalt plant in Montesano. She also worked on the survey crew for the replacement of the Hood Canal Bridge. “It was grunt work young engineers had to do,” she said.

      The benefit is that she knows a lot of the people she now bosses.

      http://seattletimes.nwsource.com/html/localnews/2004266393_paula07m.html

      My quid-pro-quo meter is starting to twitch!

  23. The people running the state highway department obviously have no interest in ferries or rail, or transit, or city streets and county roads, or anything much except state highways.

  24. FYI:
    WSDOT Headquarters – News
    310 Maple Park Ave. SE Olympia, WA 98504-7407, 360-705-7000

    FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE
    March 16, 2009

    Contact: Scott Witt, State Rail and Marine Director, 360-705-6903

    WSDOT restructures State Rail and Marine Office

    OLYMPIA –The Washington State Department of Transportation (WSDOT) announced today that it has restructured the State Rail and Marine Office to improve efficiencies and service, eliminating a total of four positions; three vacant positions and the position of Rail Passenger manager.

    “Rail, both passenger and freight, is a critically important component of the state’s transportation system”, said Scott Witt, State Rail and Marine Director. “We don’t take these moves lightly. But we believe this restructure allows us to combine and focus all of our assets in support of Washington’s rail program”.

    An internal review and a survey of stakeholders revealed that the top three services that the State Rail and Marine office should focus on are freight and passenger rail planning, rail project management, and targeted communications.

    The office has been segmented into three operating teams responsible for data and strategic planning, financial management, and delivery/project management. Moving forward, the State Rail and Marine Office will continue to focus on aggressively pursuing federal stimulus funding referencing the Amtrak Cascades Long Range Plan, the recently released Amtrak Cascades Mid Range Plan, and the department’s strategic project list in accordance with Legislative directive.

    The State Rail and Marine office directs and manages the state’s freight and passenger rail capital programs and operations. It enacts the direction of the Legislature as it impacts rail and marine initiatives and manages rail system improvements that support economic development, move people and goods, relieve road and airport congestion, and reduce greenhouse gas emissions. The department works with railroads, ports, communities, and other organizations to improve the state’s rail system. WSDOT is also responsible for rail project identification, strategic rail transportation planning, development of state rail and marine data, and state grant programs administration.

    More information on the State Rail and Marine Office is available on-line at: http://www.wsdot.wa.gov/Freight/Rail/.

    1. Ok, so perhaps things aren’t nearly so bad as many here feared. Then again it is a press release.

      1. Umm, then why is the Cascades program now on the FREIGHT webpage at WashDOT??

        Why is “State Rail and Marine Director” Scott Witt’s actual title “Freight Systems Division Co-Director” and is listed under the WSDOT Freight Systems Division?

        And will someone please explain this new organizational chart?
        http://www.wsdot.wa.gov/NR/rdonlyres/7F45D0CA-794C-4492-8D79-AA56ED89F621/0/RailSystemOrgChartFinal031009.pdf

        (I presume “Marine” is different from “Ferries” at WashDOT)

      2. Ooops, perhaps Cascades was always in the Freight page. Well I guess that’s what we passengers are? Never mind!

      3. Right, “Marine” is Port traffic. One of the things the WSDOT Rail and Marine department runs is the Grain Train which gets the wheat from eastern Washington to the ports where it can be exported.

  25. Well, the re-org is not a cost saving move. In comparing the previous org chart from Nov,07 to the new one just released, the Freight and Marine office gained a net of 4 positions.
    The interesting thing is that they lost project managers and the head of the Cascades passenger rail (Ken Uznanski), and picked up admin assistants for the two dept heads, and several researchers/planners.
    The focus is clearly going to be supporting ‘freight movements’, rail, truck, and ports. I don’t see passenger rail even listed as a primary job, in spite of the press release’s kind words towards passenger rail.
    We’ll see!

    1. I’d guess project managers are more expensive than assistants and research/planners. Sounds like less chiefs and more Indians which should get more work done. I did notice that they don’t list a Rail Passenger department anymore. However, I don’t think that’s much of a change because everybody was cross listed before so I think “Rail Passenger Department” was a bit of a “marketing tool” (maybe a good one?).

      It makes sense that many of the people dealing with passenger service would also be handling freight since one of the big parts of the job is working with BNSF to share ROW. ST administers the “passenger” component of Sounder and Amtrak the Cascades. I’m not sure how much lobbying WSDOT did for federal rail dollars. I think that’s up to our Senators and Congressional representatives. Certainly ST has a hand in the political arena but I’m not so sure I really want to see WSDOT given the mandate to try and formulate policy.

  26. The new org chart chart has the Freight Director and her staff and the old one didn’t so it is four fewer.

    If they follow their mid-range plan they can go after over $700 million in stimulus that only the state can go after, not ST. That would get the Amtrak Cascades service up 8 SEA-PDX round trips from 4 today.

  27. Of the people listed last week as being affiliated with the Passenger Rail Administration only Ken Uznanski is no longer listed with the staff. Hardly worth impeaching the Governor, especially seeing who the most likely replacement would be in a special election.

    1. Freight volumes are down.

      Passanger numbers are up.

      So let’s fire the staff who are the brain-trust on passenger matters??

      Infrastructure Stimulus money is coming and the AGC, Washington State Auto Dealers, Washington Asphalt Pavement Association, etc. don’t want rail to spoil the party.

      Asphalt uber alles!!

      1. Freight pays it’s way. Stimulus money is great but Federal funds all to often provide seed money for programs for which the States are all to often left holding the bag when it comes to long term funding. The great “green” ideal is sustainability yet all of the proposals for funding this rely on taxing the supposedly unsustainable parts of the economy… mmmm, then where does the money come from?

      2. Well even if the road/sprawl interests are up to their old tricks it isn’t like their efforts are going to lead to the Federal rail money suddenly being re-allocated to roads. Walking away from $800 million in Federal money seems kind of silly in any case.

        Also I’m not sure contractors would necessarily be against rail projects. After all somebody has to build those. Many of the projects involve grade separation or reworking grade crossings which will even provide work for contractors who specialize in roads.

      3. I have never understood why the contractors are against rail projects, but their history in Washington State shows a strong record of advocating against them. And apparently they are still at it.

    2. I’d like to point out that while Uznanski may be the only one no longer employed, those who are still employed have been reassigned to work on freight projects, and thus to NOT work on desperately needed passenger projects.

      Oh well, I guess Obama really thinks that electric cars are the answer to our problems as that’s the sort of factory he’s going to visit tomorrow in California.

      Paving our way to oblivion!

      1. From: http://allaboardwashington.org/cms/index.php

        UPDATE – WSDOT Passenger Rail Shakeup

        Last Friday, March 13th, there was a major reorganization of the office at WSDOT that handles the Amtrak Cascades service. It has came to our attention that several key staff members who were responsible for the Amtrak Cascades program have been let go or otherwise reassigned to other duties. All Aboard Washington is fully aware of the current situation at WSDOT, and we are actively working with the Legislature, WSDOT, and others to ensure that our state’s Passenger Rail program remains healthy and growing. We will post more news and detailed developments online as they become available.

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