Lee Ann Eager, Chair, California Transportation Commission
Julie Brown, Chair, Oregon Transportation Commission
Debbie Young, Chair, Washington State Transportation Commission
Tanisha Taylor, CTC Executive Director
Sabrina Foward, OTC Coordinator
Reema Griffith, WSTC Executive Director
September 7, 2023
RE: Position Paper on Passenger Rail Policy, CA, OR, WA
All Aboard Washington, the Association of Oregon Rail and Transit Advocates, Rail Passengers Association of California & Nevada and All Aboard Northwest provide the attached Position Paper to the Transportation Commissions of our respective states, ahead of your Tri-State Transportation Commission meeting on Sept. 12 & 13 in Eugene, OR.
As all state Departments of Transportation struggle with serious budgetary problems, and climate change becomes increasingly destructive, our respective DOT’s and TCs need to re-evaluate current transportation priorities. Our states need to reduce emphasis on roads and highways. Funding used for roads should focus on road maintenance. Passenger rail transportation needs to be given top priority in order to meet goals for climate change, transportation equity, public health, safety, and a strong economy.
With the exception of All Aboard Northwest, the undersigned 501(c)(3) organizations have been working to encourage safe, economical, environmentally benign and equitable transportation policy for nearly 50 years in our respective states. We understand there is no Public Comment at your meeting next week. We will follow up by sharing this letter individually with all three Commissions to continue this conversation going forward. Thank you.
Luis Moscoso, Director of Government Affairs, AAWA/AORTA
Brian Yanity, Vice President-South, Rail Passenger Association of California & Nevada (RailPAC)
Kathy Davis, President, All Aboard Washington (AAWA)
Art Poole, President, Association of Oregon Rail and Transit Advocates (AORTA)
Dan Bilka, President, All Aboard Northwest (AANW)
Rail Policy Position Paper for Tri-State Transportation Commissions
AAWA, AORTA, RailPAC, AANW, September 7, 2023
The transportation sector is the largest source of greenhouse gas emissions. The overwhelming majority of transportation emissions is from cars and trucks. To address climate change, we must increase investment in railway transport capacity (passenger and freight). We need a moratorium on increased road capacity – not merely because increased road capacity increases greenhouse gases, but also because budgetary resources are insufficient to maintain existing road infrastructure. While each mode plays an essential role, for most corridors rail is safer, more energy-efficient, economical, environmentally benign, equitable, and encourages better land use around stations.
High Speed Rail
We must plan for high-speed rail (HSR), but not as a standalone system. HSR cannot thrive unless it is integrated with a comprehensive system of high-performance rail and transit. Without a solid transportation foundation and connecting transit services, HSR cannot pass a cost-benefit analysis. California HSR and Brightline West to Nevada are moving forward. In Oregon and Washington however, our priority must be upgrading the existing Cascades, Coast Starlight, and Empire Builder corridors and establishing new passenger rail corridors.
Improve Existing Rail Service between Washington, Oregon and California
The existing Amtrak Cascades service from Vancouver, B.C. to Eugene must be improved, creating high performance rail with (1) increased frequency, (2) higher reliability, and (3) reduced trip time. We must also connect communities outside this corridor, including rural areas, outside this corridor with rail and bus.
We need to work together to increase capacity/frequency on the Coast Starlight route. The three state DOTs and local transportation agencies need to work with Amtrak and BNSF/UP on priority capital capacity projects along the entire 1,377-mile Coast Starlight corridor from Seattle to Los Angeles. Two daily round-trips will help to ensure reasonable arrival/departure times at intermediate stations like Redding, CA. Increased rail capacity allows increased frequency, reliability, ridership and return on investment. Increased rail capacity reduces traffic on I-5, strengthens local economies and allows new types of rail freight service competitive with short and medium-haul trucking.
A north-south route via Portland, Boise, Salt Lake City, Las Vegas and Los Angeles should also be considered. This routing could include a split in Pendleton, with a Seattle section serving the Tri-Cities and Yakima. Washington, Oregon and California should join Idaho, Utah and Nevada in their recently begun efforts to study new services on the historic Desert Wind and Pioneer routes.
Long-term planning is needed for adding passenger service to existing freight rail routes in areas not currently served (e.g., in Oregon, Roseburg, Grants Pass, Medford, Ashland; and Madras, Redmond, Bend). Something along the lines of a Regional Rail Authority, as encouraged by the IIJA, or a multi-state task force, is needed to create and implement this vision.
Equity, Accessibility, Rural Mobility
The current focus of our public agencies on road transport leaves a significant percentage (about 30%) of our population behind. There are many for whom age, disability or finances prevent the from access to a car. The current road-centric focus of transportation policy causes roads to perform poorly. Rail is inherently well-suited to provide accessible transportation services for all, connecting people, communities, economies.
Long-distance, or “National Network,” trains serve people traveling between major population centers (Seattle, Portland, Sacramento, Bay Area, Los Angeles), as well as to, from and between many smaller communities. Many intermediate stations lack alternative intercity transport such as air or bus service. Some Coast Starlight station communities do not have service during reasonable hours (e.g., arrivals/departures between 2 and 3 AM in Redding, CA). Long distance, National Network trains need at least two daily round trips to ensure more reasonable arrival/departure times. Increasing frequency increases ridership, improves return on investment, and strengthens local economies.
Long-distance trains enable “Universal Basic Mobility” along their routes by providing citizens an affordable transport option, regardless of their socioeconomic status, disabilities, or geographic location. One important benefit to rural travelers provided by the Amtrak long-distance trains is a safer alternative to driving. Rural residents make up less than 20% of the U.S. population, but account for about 40% of the total number of traffic fatalities nationwide.
Our three states all own and purchase passenger rolling stock. More locomotives and passenger cars are required for new train service as well as increased frequency and reliability on existing services. We need our DOTs to make ordering more rolling stock a priority, and work with Amtrak for manufacture of new long-distance equipment. Our state-supported rail programs, working with other states and Amtrak, can push for economy of scale and design optimized for economical mass production.
Each of our states has different hurdles in working toward an adequate and stable funding source for intercity transportation services. Oregon has failed to take advantage of federal funding because of the lack of local match and identified, shovel-ready projects for decades.
Rail has historically been placed at a disadvantage – primarily because it was historically the only form of transport demonstrating the potential of profitability without lavish public investment in infrastructure (right-of-way). Because freight rail transport alone is generally profitable, rights-of-way remain in private ownership. This is the primary reason our nation’s transportation policies and economies are distorted. Our states need to overcome the restraints on public investment in rail infrastructure/capacity and public policies which create over-dependency on publicly provided road and aviation infrastructure.
Funding silos in transportation inhibit the ability to select the best solution to meet transportation needs. This is particularly true in Oregon and Washington. A short-term solution may be to create funding silos for intercity transport, serving both rural and urban areas. But our long-term goal should be to create a funding system that uses available dollars for the best solution – a solution based on safety, economy (efficiency), environment and equity. Real progress will be realized only after we merge all the “transportation silos” to develop the system upon which our economy, health, environment and future can thrive.
Give Rail Passengers a Voice
Our states should include the needs and concerns of the train-riding public in their official transportation plans, Public Advisory Groups, and in state agency input to the FRA Long Distance Service Study.