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Portland-Seattle Amtrak gets $598 million economic stimulus boost

(The following story by Dylan Rivera appeared on The Oregonian website on January 27, 2010.)

PORTLAND, Ore. Portland-to-Seattle Amtrak service will get a $598 million boost today when President Barack Obama announces economic stimulus grants for high-speed rail projects across the nation.

Washington will get $590 million, while Oregon gets $8 million to spend in the Portland area. The grant is the Northwest's slice of $8 billion the Obama administration will allocate to 13 corridors nationwide.

A partial seismic upgrade and roof repairs for historic Union Station, at a cost of $7.25 million, may be the most noticeable improvement for Oregon travelers. The rest of the Oregon money will go for engineering studies for future installation of switches and other improvements along a congested section of freight tracks in North Portland.

The $598 million pales in comparison with the $2.1 billion application that the two states submitted last year and it's about half the money slated for construction of an 84-mile Tampa-Orlando, Fla., rail line.

But amid intense competition, Northwest officials seem satisfied with the grant.

"It shows the administration is committed to this corridor," said Jillian Schoene, a spokeswoman for Gov. Ted Kulongoski. "We do hope that this is the first of many investments."

The administration rejected eight other high-speed rail projects from Portland to Eugene that were part of the states' proposal. Most were studies of future work, while the stimulus program emphasized funding projects that could provide construction jobs in a matter of months.

Kulongoski spoke on Wednesday with U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood, who said a second round of high-speed rail funding would provide $2.5 billion for states to seek. The administration plans another $1 billion a year for five years for high-speed rail, and proposals in Congress could add tens of billions beyond that.

The Washington allocation may serve as a testament to the influence of U.S. Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., who chairs the transportation subcommittee of the Senate Appropriations Committee. Murray pushed for high-speed rail money to be included in the stimulus bill and also lobbied LaHood directly for the Northwest corridor.

U.S. Rep. Earl Blumenauer, D-Ore., said Washington got more money because the state "has invested more ... in years past."

The money for the Northwest gives the corridor momentum for future funding as it becomes available, he said. For high-speed rail overall, the funding and mention in the State of the Union address give momentum and stand in contrast with how Washington, D.C., viewed it in the past.

"Just think about it, only a couple years ago we were fighting to keep Amtrak from being shut down," he said.

The $590 million in Washington would go for construction of bypass tracks and rerouting existing rail service to increase train speeds and provide quicker trips.

The $7.25 million for Union Station renovation would help repair the red metal tile roof, which leaks so badly that buckets are used in some places to catch rainwater. It would also help build earthquake proofing upgrades.

The 1896 landmark, on the National Register of Historic Places and owned by the city of Portland, may need $30 million to $40 million in seismic and other overhauls, city officials say. It hasn't had a major renovation since the 1930s.

The national competition underscores how potentially popular, but incredibly expensive, it would be to realize the vision of a national network of truly high-speed trains. The $8 billion in stimulus money was targeted at rail projects that are ready for construction, but in Oregon and across the nation, many projects still need substantial planning.

The U.S. government applies the term "high-speed rail" to trains traveling more than 90 mph. The European Union standard is above 125 mph and many European and Asian services have traveled at 150 mph for a decade or more. Oregon-Washington Amtrak service has a top speed of 79 mph, though the trains are capable of 125 mph.

Thursday, January 28, 2010

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