SPOKANE — You hop on a train in downtown Spokane in the morning, pass through Pasco, Toppenish, Yakima, Cle Elum and Auburn, and arrive in Seattle by the early afternoon.
Or, if you miss that train, another leaves Spokane midday and arrives in the Emerald City that evening.
That was the most complete of numerous scenarios for expanding rail service in Eastern Washington that the Legislature paid a transportation consultancy group a quarter-million dollars to analyze over the past year.
What they found in a report produced last month wasn’t, at first glance, exactly encouraging, even if it did conclude that the “introduction of daylight passenger rail service along the Stampede Pass route is physically and operationally feasible.”
For one thing, the study found, adding a new rail line for a twice-daily round trip would require “significant upfront costs” of nearly $390 million in infrastructure improvements and equipment.
Operating the line would take nearly
$30 million a year.
And the trips all those millions would make possible would take more than 81∕2 hours — significantly longer than hopping in a car and driving across the state.
While the study found strong support for the project, it also anticipated a relatively low annual ridership of 205,000 for a twice-daily round trip that would bring in just more than $6 million a year.
When you combine those kinds of costs and benefits with a state government and state transportation department facing major revenue woes due to the coronavirus pandemic, the odds that new cross-state rail service will be added anytime soon seem long.
Even preserving Spokane’s existing — and limited — passenger rail service isn’t a sure thing.
Amtrak announced in June plans to cut its daily service on long-distance routes to three days a week as of Oct. 1. Doing so would entail reducing runs of the Empire Builder, which passes through Sandpoint and Spokane on its way to Seattle and Portland.
But those cuts could be called off.
The U.S. House of Representatives is finishing work on a bill that would include some $10 billion for Amtrak and $24 billion for transit systems, “funds that will be critical to avoiding service reductions and continuing infrastructure investment programs in the face of the economic downturn,” according to the Rail Passengers Association, which advocates for train passengers.
While the association acknowledges it’s “unlikely” the Senate will keep funding levels that high, a Friday news release said “there have been clear requests for enhanced funding coming out of the Senate” that would keep service cuts from taking effect.
Charles Hamilton, a volunteer spokesman for the state rail-advocacy group All Aboard Washington, shares in that optimism about Amtrak reversing course.
“I don’t think anything’s set in stone right now,” Hamilton said. “But my understanding is there’s been enough pushback that we hope it won’t happen.”
Hamilton is also convinced a new passenger line will connect Spokane and Seattle via Yakima, even if, he acknowledges, the recently released
analysis is a mix of “good news and bad news.”
He admits, for example, that the route over Stampede Pass wouldn’t be competitive with driving, in terms of the time it would take. But he disputed how large of an effect travel time would have on how many people would ultimately prefer a train that left during daylight instead of at 2:15 a.m., when the Empire Builder heads west from downtown Spokane early each morning.
“We feel that the ridership numbers are probably low,” he said. “Our belief is that in fact, those numbers can be changed. They can make it faster on the current line without too much difficulty. There’s also a significant number of people who can’t drive or would prefer not to drive. ... They might well prefer to be on a train than having to worry about, in the winter, whether Snoqualmie Pass will be closed.”
As for the investment it would take, Hamilton said, “Yeah, it’s going to cost money to build this thing, but it’s actually going to have a positive return on investment.”
An admittedly back-of-the-napkin economic analysis from All Aboard Washington estimated new rail service would save the state more than $30 million from diverted car trips and would result in some $7 million in spending from visitors who would use the service.
Hamilton acknowledged these were “very rough estimates,” but he also noted that the more-than-$300-million price tag for infrastructure improvements to the existing BNSF rail line doesn’t look so bad when you look at the cost of far smaller road projects, such as the $283 million the Washington State Department of Transportation spent to add six miles of passing lanes on Snoqualmie Pass.
While he said members of the Legislature’s Joint Transportation Committee indicated the project is “going to be very tough” to complete under the current fiscal (and epidemiological) circumstances, Hamilton said the burden of making a new rail line doesn’t have to fall entirely on Olympia.
Pointing to a burgeoning county-led effort to restore passenger service through southern Montana, Hamilton said, “That’s probably what’s going to have to happen here. The local communities here going to have to get together and say, ‘We want this because it’s good for economic recovery.’ “
To make the case that it would, indeed, be good for the recovery that Spokane and everywhere else will almost certainly be in need of once the specter of COVID-19 lifts, All Aboard Washington aims to conduct a more comprehensive economic impact study showing the potential benefits of the new rail line.
The group also aims to push for a new regional rail commission that would bring Northwest states together to “cooperate to build more passenger rail and freight rail, for that matter” and for the activation of county rail districts that would, like port districts, be able to fund and oversee projects.
All Aboard Washington also plans to get local governments along the proposed east-west line, including Spokane’s, to pass resolutions of support from local governments.
The goal, Hamilton said, is to boost passenger service in underserved parts of the state, including Eastern and Central Washington, while also working on the longer-term project of realizing the dream of high-speed rail service between Eugene, Oregon, and Vancouver, British Columbia, along what’s known as the Cascadia Line. If both become realities, he said, they would connect in Auburn.