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Opinion: High-speed rail along the West Coast is a 'no-brainer'

(The following column by Joel Connelly appeared on the Seattle Post-Intelligencer website on May 27, 2009.)

SEATTLE, Wash. Enduring a 90-minute wait to cross the U.S.-Canada border on Tuesday, Vancouver Mayor Gregor Robertson had time to reflect on the need to link Northwest cities with fast, frequent rail service.

"Today, we drove. If there were a train, we'd have been on it: High-speed rail is a no-brainer for me," Robertson told a small Seattle dinner that night.

The mayor added, comparing his rail experiences in Europe to the time consumed getting in and out of Northwest airports, "It's faster and a helluva lot more fun than flying."

The mayors of Vancouver and Portland -- Greg Nickels is in Montreal -- and a bevy of officeholders and experts are devoting the last few days in May to a moveable "Cascade Rail Week."

They have two goals in mind, fast future trains such as those in the Washington, D.C.-New York corridor . . . and getting more cross-border rail service in time for nest February's Vancouver Winter Olympics.

Achieving these goals likely will depend on two guys with unusual names in far-off capitals -- Barack and Iggy.

The Northwest's rail boosters are hoping for a billion-dollar slice of the $8 billion high-speed rail pie that's part of the Obama stimulus package.

The money is to be spent in the next two years, with the administration promising to ask Congress for an additional $1 billion a year for the next five years.

The I-5 corridor, from Eugene, Ore., to Vancouver, is one of 10 corridors around the country in competition for the money. Other regions with projects in the oven include a Washington, D.C., to Florida link, service between Chicago and Milwaukee, Wisconsin, and a long-on-the-book California link between San Francisco and Los Angeles.In the United States, except for one East Coast corridor, high-speed train service has sat in the station taking off in other industrialized countries.

"Why is the technologically most advanced nation on earth so far behind on rail?" state Sen. Mary Margaret Haugen, chairwoman of the Senate Transportation Committee, asked at the dinner.

The president of the United States has posed a similar question, noting the bullet trains of Japan and the rail network that links cities in France.

"This is not some fanciful, pie-in-the-sky vision of the future. It's happening now: The problem is, it's happening elsewhere," Obama said recently.

The second goal of "Cascadia Rail Week" is to flag down bureaucrats in Ottawa before the world arrives in Vancouver next February.

"Our federal government is not there yet," Robertson acknowledged.At present, a single Amtrak train leaves Seattle early in the morning, and returns from Vancouver in the evening. Amtrak is eager to include a second daily run, an evening train to Vancouver that would return the following morning.

The expanded service would encourage overnight stays in Vancouver. The Washington Dept of Transportation has forecast $16 million to $33 million in benefits to British Columbia's Lower Mainland.

But Canada's Border Services Agency has put a block in the path of the second train.

Ottawa bureaucrats demand that Amtrak pay to staff the border checkpoint for the second train, which would hit the 49th Parallel after normal working hours. The cost would come to more than $500,000 a year.

The red light in Ottawa has even provoked outrage even from the Vancouver Sun, usually a slavish supporter of Prime Minister Stephen Harper and his Conservative Party government.

"These trains could have been rolling nine months ago," opined British Columbia's largest newspaper.

"Iggy" is opposition Liberal Party leader Michael Ignatieff, "hopefully our next prime minister" in Robertson's words. Another Canadian national election is predicted for fall. A former Harvard professor, Iggy needs to pick up at least six to ten parliamentary seats in British Columbia -- specifically the Lower Mainland -- if he is to unseat Harper.

In a classic truism for a West Coast politician, the newly elected (2008) Robertson spoke of disconnect and "frustration with the federal governments in both of our countries."

South of the border, such "Cascadians" as former Secretary of State Ralph Munro and Bruce Agnew of the Discovery Institute have worked for two decades to bring fast, reliable rail service to the I-5 corridor.Does Obama's stimulus package represent a light at the end of the tunnel?

"We're all getting old so lets get this damned railroad built," Munro said at the dinner.

Thursday, May 28, 2009

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