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High-speed rail proposal could threaten already low Amtrak ridership in Oregon City

(The following story by Steve Mayes appeared on The Oregonian website on May 29, 2010.)

PORTLAND, Ore. — When Oregon City finishes work on its Amtrak station next month, the town will have invested more than $3 million in the passenger stop.

The city is adding parking spaces and relocated an old freight depot to the 6-year-old Amtrak stop on Washington Street.

The old building and new landscaping give Oregon City a picturesque place to catch the four trains -- two northbound, two southbound -- that provide daily service between Portland and Eugene.

While there's a lot of civic pride and public money invested in the tidy little depot -- a project city officials pursued for a decade -- riders have not hopped on board as hoped.

During the opening day hoopla in April 2004, an Amtrak official predicted the Oregon City station would add 10,000 to 15,000 riders annually.

Those passengers never arrived.

The station averaged about 3,700 riders a year from 2004 to 2009, according to Amtrak's statistics.

There's not much Oregon City or Amtrak can do to boost ridership. Nevertheless, city leaders remain optimistic about Amtrak's potential benefits.

Oregon City is designated by Metro as a regional center and Amtrak provides "a regional link," Oregon City Mayor Alice Norris said.

"It's an alternative method of transportation and a fairly inexpensive method of transportation," Norris said.

Convenience is the sticking point, Norris said.

Riders can't buy tickets at the station. There is no indoor waiting area. The depot building will be leased as office space and there are no immediate plans to open it for passenger use.

Freight trains have priority and often sidetrack passenger trains, which frequently run behind schedule.

But the biggest problem is the limited service. The state underwrites the Portland-Eugene trains and doesn't have the money for expanded service.

The federal government wants to develop high-speed rail service and allocated $8 billion nationwide for such projects.

"I'm hoping the national commitment to rail will increase the convenience and opportunity for local riders," Norris said.

There is a long-shot proposal that could totally upend Oregon City's rail plans.

The Oregon Department of Transportation is considering a long-term plan to shift Amtrak service to another rail line west of the Willamette River. That means the trains would bypass Oregon City.

"We were dismayed that recommendation had been made," said Nancy Kraushaar, the city's public works director.

A consultant who recommended the shift said the change -- along with track improvements -- would increase ridership, save money and improve freight rail operations on both routes.

Norris said she isn't losing sleep over the proposal.

"It's not going to be in our lifetime," she said.

Tuesday, June 1, 2010

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