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High-speed rail improvements could aid Oregon economy

(The following story by Peter Wong appeared on the Statesman Journal website on September 21, 2010.)

SALEM, Ore. — Experts differed on details, but they urged Monday that Oregon invest more to speed movement of passengers and freight through the Willamette Valley.

They spoke at a meeting sponsored by Rail Now Oregon at the Salem Conference Center.

Gil Mallery, who helped launch Washington's state-supported passenger service in 1994 before becoming president of Amtrak West, said Oregon must mobilize the support of business.

"I think the private sector understands that if you don't make significant investments in infrastructure, your economy will not be competitive," said Mallery, who lives in West Linn and now works for the high-speed rail team at Parsons Brinckerhoff engineering firm.

"If you do not make these investments, you are going to be stuck in congestion on Interstate 5. Investing in more lanes on I-5 is not a good investment."

One of the conference organizers, Britta Franz, is a Salem businesswoman who acknowledged that Oregon rail supporters have a lot of work to do.

"We are barely in the coach's office" while Washington rail supporters can point to four round-trip trains daily between Portland and Seattle, she said. That will increase to six by 2016 and eventually 13.

Oregon began state-supported train service between Portland and Eugene in 1994 and added a second round-trip in 2000. However, until lawmakers earmarked income from customized license plates a few years ago, Oregon had trouble maintaining its operating subsidies.

"You are ahead in transit planning," said Lloyd Flem, executive director of the rail passenger-advocacy group All Aboard Washington, referring to Portland's light-rail system. "But we are ahead in intercity rail planning."

When $8 billion was distributed for rail improvements under the 2009 federal economic-recovery program, Washington received $590 million and Oregon $8 million. Washington had sought $1.3 billion, Oregon, $2.1 billion, most of it for study and construction on an alternative route on the old Oregon Electric Railway tracks.

Oregon uses Union Pacific Railroad tracks; Washington uses Burlington Northern Santa Fe Railway tracks. Amtrak operates the state-supported trains under contract with the state transportation agencies.

Experts differed on details, but they urged Monday that Oregon invest more to speed movement of passengers and freight through the Willamette Valley.


They spoke at a meeting sponsored by Rail Now Oregon at the Salem Conference Center.

Gil Mallery, who helped launch Washington's state-supported passenger service in 1994 before becoming president of Amtrak West, said Oregon must mobilize the support of business.

"I think the private sector understands that if you don't make significant investments in infrastructure, your economy will not be competitive," said Mallery, who lives in West Linn and now works for the high-speed rail team at Parsons Brinckerhoff engineering firm.

"If you do not make these investments, you are going to be stuck in congestion on Interstate 5. Investing in more lanes on I-5 is not a good investment."

One of the conference organizers, Britta Franz, is a Salem businesswoman who acknowledged that Oregon rail supporters have a lot of work to do.

"We are barely in the coach's office" while Washington rail supporters can point to four round-trip trains daily between Portland and Seattle, she said. That will increase to six by 2016 and eventually 13.

Oregon began state-supported train service between Portland and Eugene in 1994 and added a second round-trip in 2000. However, until lawmakers earmarked income from customized license plates a few years ago, Oregon had trouble maintaining its operating subsidies.

"You are ahead in transit planning," said Lloyd Flem, executive director of the rail passenger-advocacy group All Aboard Washington, referring to Portland's light-rail system. "But we are ahead in intercity rail planning."

When $8 billion was distributed for rail improvements under the 2009 federal economic-recovery program, Washington received $590 million and Oregon $8 million. Washington had sought $1.3 billion, Oregon, $2.1 billion, most of it for study and construction on an alternative route on the old Oregon Electric Railway tracks.

Oregon uses Union Pacific Railroad tracks; Washington uses Burlington Northern Santa Fe Railway tracks. Amtrak operates the state-supported trains under contract with the state transportation agencies.

They are separate from Amtrak's Coast Starlight, which is part of its national system and uses heavier rail cars than the Talgo trains used on the state-supported services.

Mallery said Oregon should adopt an incremental approach, much like Washington's, to develop frequent service before full high-speed rail. He also said Oregon needs to obtain environmental clearances before the Federal Railroad Administration is willing to give it any grants.

"The competition for dollars is intense," he said. "If you don't have your act together, you will be disappointed."

Bill Burgel, a former Union Pacific executive who now is senior vice president for rail at the engineering firm of HDR Inc., had a different take.

He said true high-speed rail in the United States, allowing speeds greater than 90 mph, will eventually require passenger lines separate from existing freight rails. But he said he agreed with Mallery that Oregon should build on what it has now.

"The whole idea of getting people out of their cars is that they have to think a train is waiting for them," Burgel said. "If you are operating one or two trains per day, you cannot develop ridership."

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

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