December 19, 2019

Mid-December Updates From Olympia

The Joint Transportation Committee (JTC) presented an update of the East-West Intercity Passenger Rail Study at the Capitol on Tuesday, Dec 17th, 2019. Dave Catterson of the JTC was joined by Ian Sproul of Steer, the consulting group selected to conduct the study. Sproul summarized Steer’s outreach efforts in Yakima and the Tri-Cities, their modeling work to date, and their anticipated next steps for the project. Catterson and Sproul also took the time to answer the questions of representatives. Rep. Beohnke of Kennewick expressed his interest in improving cooperation with local councils of government, saying, “Let me know, of course, so I can help make sure they’re highly motivated.” The study is due in June 2020, with a significant progress report expected in May.

The route in question, the Stampede Pass rail line owned by Burlington Northern Santa Fe Railway (BNSF), handled passenger trains for over 90 years until 1981. The line connects Cle Elum, Yakima, Ellensburg, Toppenish, and Prosser with main lines in Auburn and the Tri-Cities. While the Stampede Pass line is currently being used only by empty eastbound freight trains, All Aboard Washington (AAWA) envisions the reactivation of passenger service as a critical means of bridging the gap between eastern, central, and western Washington. Much of the route is single-tracked and would require upgrades to host passenger trains, but a 2001 WSDOT study concluded that reinstating state-supported service similar to Amtrak Cascades is feasible.

The following day, WSDOT conducted a meeting at their Olympia headquarters providing an update to the state rail plan. Included in this refresh of the 2014 plan are new traffic growth scenarios, performance goals, and multimodal connectivity analyses for each train station. Of note are WSDOT’s prediction that all major freight lines (except for Stampede Pass) will be strained under a high-growth forecast, and that Lacey-Olympia and Vancouver, Washington stations score the lowest in terms of their overall connectivity to their surroundings. The new state rail plan will enhance WSDOT’s ability to apply for federal funding by clarifying its greatest needs and opportunities for improvement. AAWA's Luis Moscoso made a public comment after the meeting, promoting AAWA's involvement in the East-West Intercity Passenger Rail Study. "We have been instrumental in pushing for the restoration of service across the Stampede Pass," he said. Moscoso also presented the organization's thoughts on restoring Cascades service to the Point Defiance Bypass and touted the success of an October Association of Oregon Rail and Transit Advocates (AORTA) meeting in La Grande which called for restored passenger rail service between Portland and Boise.

In a recent position paper, AAWA expressed its support for expanding state-funded passenger rail services like the Cascades to serve places that deserve better public transportation options. AAWA believes it is worthwhile for us to consider “restarting service in regions that haven’t seen it in decades, like Yakima, Walla Walla, and Pullman.” As taxpayers and consumers, we feel that our tax dollars are best spent building fast, reliable and frequent passenger rail services to serve our transportation needs. AAWA is proud to have participated in the passing of the East-West Intercity Passenger Rail Study of 2019 and commends WSDOT for its work to refine the state rail plan for our benefit.