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West Coast high-speed rail: First a route must be chosen

(The following story by Hasso Hering appeared on Gazette Times website on April 24, 2010.)

CORVALLIS, Ore. Before anyone can work on plans for high-speed passenger rail in the Willamette Valley, local and state authorities have to decide on a route.

Discussion on that issue has started, ODOT-Rail officials report. And mid-valley residents get a chance to join in at an open house scheduled from 4:30 to 6:30 p.m. May 25 at the Albany City Hall.

It is one of a series of open houses the Rail Division of the Oregon Department of Transportation has called up and down the valley in May and June.

The Obama administration says it wants to make much more funding available for high-speed rail - meaning speeds of up to 110 miles an hour - in different corridors, including Eugene to Seattle.

So far there's no agreement on a potential route.

"Some want it where it is (Union Pacific), some want to move it to another existing freight line (Portland & Western's Oregon Electric), others want an entirely new alignment that could be anywhere," Betsy Imholt of ODOT-Rail wrote in an e-mail to the Democrat-Herald.

One alternative might be to build a rail line alongside Interstate 5, or even in the median if there's space, according to Bob Melbo, a planner with ODOT-Rail.

The current Amtrak service runs on the Union Pacific line through Albany.

The old Oregon Electric line operated by the Portland & Western freight railroad also runs through Albany, but north and south of the city it runs pretty much through open farmland.

"We don't know what the answer is yet," Imholt wrote. "We are planning to apply for federal funding next month to complete an Alternatives Analysis to conduct the studies and public involvement process to select a route. The AA will take about two years to complete."

Meanwhile, ODOT has drafted more modest goals for improvements in the existing Amtrak passenger service between Eugene and Portland via Albany and Salem.
These too will be up for discussion at the upcoming open houses.

ODOT outlined the goals in an update of its rail program in March:

Raise average passenger train speeds from the current 42 to 65 miles an hour.

Raise the maximum speed from 79 mph now to 110 mph.

Cut the time it takes to travel between Eugene and Portland from the current 2 hours and 35 minutes to one hour and 55 minutes. That's roughly the time it takes to drive the same distance on I-5.

And raise the on-time performance of the trains from 68 percent to 95 percent or more.

In addition, ODOT says it hopes to increase the number of trains to six a day by 2030, up from two now.

After a brief experiment with passenger trains in the 1980s, Oregon restarted passenger service in the valley in 1994.

The Cascades trains stop in Albany four times each day, twice in each direction. In addition, there are the two daily stops of the Coast Starlight long-distance trains, and eight bus routes operated by Amtrak to supplement the trains.

The state contributes about $5 million a year to operate the service. The money comes from the sale of custom license plates, but Melbo reports it's running a little short this year and the Oregon Transportation Commission may have to deal with that issue eventually.

ODOT says that along the entire length of the corridor, the passenger count set a record of more than 60,000 in February, the last month for which numbers have been posted.

Oregon-funded trains alone carried 7,691 passengers in February. That was up slightly from last year but down from the same month in 2008.

In Albany during February, 828 people got on the trains and 653 got off, according to a table posted by ODOT-Rail.

Monday, April 26, 2010

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