A new agreement signed by the Washington State Department of Transportation, BNSF Railway and Amtrak clears the way to spend $590 million of a federal grant to upgrade freight tracks for expanded passenger service.
The improvements will be to Amtrak's Cascades Corridor, which links the cities of Eugene and Portland, Ore., with Seattle, Wash. and Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada. Projects it will fund include building bypass tracks to allow for increased train frequency, multiple upgrades to existing track, grade separations and advanced-warning signal systems. "This will reduce passenger/freight congestion, making passenger travel times shorter with more reliable on-time service," said the state DOT.
It comes in the same week that Florida's governor, Rick Scott, has taken steps to kill the nation's first bullet train project and turn down $2.4 billion in federal funds for it. The Cascades deal, like most others in the passenger rail program, puts money instead into freight-owned tracks to allow faster and more frequent Amtrak service in the shared lanes. Washington Gov. Christine Gregoire has also said her state would want some of the money if Florida finally declines its funds.
The U.S. Department of Transportation said with the signing of the new accord for Washington, "five of the six high-speed rail corridors that require coordination with freight railroads now have a signed agreement in place." Another is pending in North Carolina, on state-owned tracks used by Norfolk Southern Railway.
DOT Secretary Ray LaHood said "this agreement will immediately put Washingtonians to work in good paying jobs, significantly improve rail service for commuters and travelers, and preserve the world-class freight rail system America has today." The deal's timing allows work to begin in the 2011 construction season.
Some freight railroads have been slow to negotiate grant-implementing agreements with the states since the first awards were announced in January 2010, as they hammered out terms for the money and federal pressure to build in performance measures for passenger trains that would obligate the host freight line.
The DOT said this accord contains performance standards that mildly reduce travel times but should increase on-time reliability of passenger trains there to an expected 88 percent from 62 percent now. It will also allow for two more daily Amtrak runs between Portland and Seattle by 2017, for a total of six.
Matthew K. Rose, BNSF's chairman and CEO, called it "an important milestone in our longstanding relationship with WSDOT to fund improvements for additional and improved passenger service in the Cascades corridor."
Washington was also awarded $161.5 million in December for passenger train projects from money rejected by Wisconsin and Ohio. "Agreements to obligate this additional funding for Washington projects are expected in the near future," the state DOT said.
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