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Oregon: Funding Rail with Vanity Plates

The following is an excerpt from Waiting on a Train: The Embattled Future of Passenger Rail Service by James McCommons. It has been adapted for the Web.


I got off at Salem late that evening. The next morning, I went to the Oregon DOT where I had hoped to meet with Uznanski’s counterpart, Kelly Taylor, administrator of the rail division. Over the phone, she had been quite honest regarding Oregon’s efforts.

“We don’t have as good a story to tell you as Washington. We just haven’t had the money to put into the trains, and the real problem is where to put the money we have,” she said.

When the Cascades Service was first initiated, Oregon envisioned running five trains a day to Eugene, 111 miles south of Portland, but it hasn’t come up with the money. By statute, the state cannot use any portion of its gas taxes for rail. Those revenues must go toward highways, so DOT has used lottery-backed bonds, a tax on lawnmowers, and some general funding to run just two Amtrak Cascades trains on to Eugene. Amtrak does not have the money to help with funding. In 2007, Taylor was able to convince the legislature at least to channel income from the sale of vanity license plates into passenger rail and bus service.

I met with Bob Melbo, a rail planner who had been president of the Willamette & Pacific Railroad, a short-line freight railroad, before coming to DOT. Melbo put the issue simply: “There has not been a lot of political support for trains.”

Instead, Oregon has subsidized buses between Eugene and Portland to make connections with the remainder of the Talgo trains going north to Seattle. Through the summer of 2008, when gas prices were high, the buses ran full. The overall ridership on the Amtrak Cascades service in both Washington and Oregon rose 14.4 percent in 2008.

“People are moving to the trains and the bus services. Something has to be done because what we offer today is not adequate,” admitted Melbo.

Whether Oregon would buy or lease its own trains had yet to be determined. The Talgo, in Melbo’s words, is “a nice piece of equipment but it isn’t what Oregon needs.” There are few curves in the mainline tracks south of Portland so the tilt technology isn’t needed. Also, Oregon wants an easily expandable train set, something like the bi-level coaches on California’s Capitol Corridor; each coach, depending on its seating configuration, can carry nearly 100 passengers and can hook up to an Amtrak Superliner car.

But there’s a further financial problem: Oregon cannot run any more trains until it pays for additional slots on the Union Pacific main line. Although Union Pacific has cooperated with Oregon on some projects, it essentially wants what Melbo described as “megabucks” to expand the infrastructure’s capacity. Between Portland and Eugene the main line is single track, and though there are eleven passing sidings, the track already is jammed with freight trains. In the next ten years or so, freight-rail volume in Oregon is expected to double. If the state wants to run five or six round-trips daily between Portland and Eugene, he said, Union Pacific wants it to finance a second set of tracks.

However, Oregon may have an alternative. The Portland and Western Regional Railroad has 500 miles of track in northwest Oregon and it runs a line that largely parallels I-5 between Eugene and Portland.

“And it’s all low-density rail,” said Melbo. “By going there, we won’t have to deal with twenty-five freight trains a day.”

The Portland and Western (P&W) has already worked with TriMet, Portland’s public transit system, and has shown a willingness to accept public money to upgrade its infrastructure. A big question would be Amtrak’s participation. States that subsidize train service typically choose Amtrak to run their trains. Amtrak has experience in the business, it runs a national, centralized ticketing operation, and, most importantly, it has a statutory right to run on the tracks of railroads that originally signed the Amtrak agreement.

In other words, to get access to the tracks of any Class 1 railroad, a state really has to go with Amtrak. Not so on the P&W. Oregon could choose another operator or even contract with the short line to operate the passenger trains. However, until there is money and momentum it’s all academic. Oregon, like Washington, will add another million residents by 2020 and most of those people will reside along the I-5 corridor where highway traffic will get worse.

“If we start running trains up to 80 mph and getting the time between Eugene and Portland down to two hours, we’re going to move a lot of people off I-5,” Melbo said. “We know there is a market there.”

The next morning, I rode a Talgo to Portland, just fifty-two miles to the north of Salem. I had a few hours before I caught the Empire Builder back to the Midwest and had arranged to stop at the café in Powell’s City of Books to meet Fred Nussbaum, a director with the Association of Oregon Rail & Transit Advocates (AORTA), a rail advocacy group. Nussbaum holds an urban studies degree from Portland University and a planning degree from MIT and has worked as a rail planner for transit agencies.

He placed a city bus schedule on the table and told me we had an hour to talk before he had to catch the bus home to give a music lesson. He plays cello as a member of the Pacific Northwest Contra and English Country Dance Band.

When it comes to mass transit and intercity rail, Oregon, like much of the country, is at a crossroads, he said. Although it has established the Cascades Service and aided construction of Portland’s new light-rail system, the state so far has been too timid to make the types of investments needed for the future, he said.

“Why does Washington have more trains than Oregon? Money talks. Oregon can only muster $10 million while Washington has spent more than $100 million,” he said.

AORTA would like to see Oregon create a passenger system capable of running six to eight trains a day at speeds of 125 mph along the corridor. The Union Pacific main line between Portland and Eugene should be double-tracked—in some sections triple-tracked—to enable the fast passenger trains to go around freights, said Nussbaum.

All of these proposed improvements have been studied and costed out at around $2 billion. Big money, yes, but big payoffs, said Nussbaum.

“You get that many trains going back and forth between here and Eugene and then tie that into what Washington is doing and it would start making a major difference,” he said.

I asked Nussbaum about the chances of Union Pacific’s cooperation or the possibility of moving to the P&W infrastructure. It didn’t matter which was chosen as long as the freight railroad was presented with a business plan that buys the slots needed for passenger trains, he said.

“With all the growth that is coming in the Northwest, both freight and passenger, we need to move much more aggressively. It’s really time to act, but in Oregon it’s just not happening.”

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