After WSDOT closed both Snoqualmie Pass and Stevens Passes on Christmas Eve due to ten feet (3 meters) of snow, I watched on social media as my friends trying to head east for a Spokane Christmas either despondently stayed home or pressed on by driving to Spokane via Portland.
With bus service also shut down and flights packed, the Seattle Times coverage of the closures noted that one Amtrak ticket across the Cascades was available at the time of publication, a $750 bedroom on the Empire Builder. Which is a shame, because Amtrak’s Empire Builder ran flawlessly through the storms.
We need more and better options across the Cascades, not just redundancy during rare road closures, but plausible and convenient options that knit the state together without requiring a personal car.
Consider a simple trip to Spokane. By my rough estimates, personal vehicles account for 89% of average weekday trips across the chokepoint of the major passes, with Snoqualmie (15,000) and Stevens Pass (2,000) averaging 17,000 vehicles per day (of course, only a fraction are headed to Spokane, but it’s a rough proxy). An order of magnitude smaller, the 15 daily flights between Seattle-Spokane on Alaska and Delta provide another 1,700 seats. Nearly a further order of magnitude smaller, 4 daily buses provide 200 seats, and the Empire Builder averages just 73 daily Spokane passengers from all stations between Seattle/Portland and Chicago.
Are we stuck with cars for the vast majority and niche options for the rest? Though WSDOT has shown a significant interest in intercity bus service, its initial lines have been rural lifeline service connecting Spokane-Kettle Falls, Seattle-Port Angeles, Omak-Ellensburg, and Pasco-Walla Walla. But perhaps nowhere is WSDOT’s involvement in public transportation more appropriate than with intercity bus and train service.
So where should we start? What kinds of services would you like to see? In the short term, I’d love WSDOT to either subsidize additional frequencies on Northwest Trailways or Greyhound, or better yet entice Bolt Bus to offer nonstop Seattle-Spokane service. Medium to long term, we need state-operated rail services untied to Amtrak’s oscillating fates. The list of projects needed would be long, including a crown-cut tunnel and new welded rail over Stampede Pass, capacity improvements over Stevens Pass, and maybe new rail from Ellensburg to Lind. But no matter the specifics or mode, we need to live in a state where traveling between our major cities is easier than, “Good luck, I hope you have chains and all-wheel drive.”