Blaine could be the next stop on the map for commuter train traffic as soon as 2012 if the results of a study by a public transportation advocacy group are favorable.
Speaking during a regularly scheduled Blaine City Council meeting Monday, mayor Bonnie Onyon announced that the Seattle-based non-profit group Cascadia Center is working with the Whatcom Council of Governments (COG), Burlington Northern/ Santa Fe and the Washington State Department of Transportation to conduct a feasibility study of a commuter train from Everett to the Canadian border.
Onyon said if the results of the study are favorable, Blaine could be among one of several small towns north of Everett to be serviced by a commuter train, which is cheaper and more frequent than Amtrak.
“The idea is they are including Blaine as a possible stop because they want to draw passengers from lower mainland British Columbia,” Onyon said. “That way, Canadian passengers can come across the border or even walk across the border and take the train where they need to go.”
She added that she and other city officials are working with the Whatcom Council of Governments to contact Burlington Northern headquarters to help save Blaine’s historic depot.
“I think besides having a reason to keep that station, having a stop here means there’s going to be passengers waiting and having some time to spend in downtown Blaine as well as being a nice amenity for our own citizens to be able to catch a train down to Seattle,” she said. “It’s going to be a benefit for everyone.”
Cascadia Center policy director Bruce Agnew, who is working to coordinate the study, said the decision comes after state legislators approved $500,000 of federal economic recovery funds to be used for public transportation improvements.
He said $300,000 of those funds will go to the continuation of the International Mobility and Trade Corridor project (IMTC), an international coalition of business and goverment entities that work to promote improvement to Whatcom County’s four border crossings.
The other $200,000 is being used to fund efforts to increase train service between Seattle-Vancouver, as indicated by a pact between Governor Chris Gregoire and Premier Gordon Campbell.
“The point of this is to find out if there is a market for this service and to identify what operational issues there’s will be,” Agnew said.
Other possible stops north of Everett include Stanwood, Marysville and Tulalip, he said.
The study will work with DOT and local governments and communities to identify community interest, costs and operational issues.
Agnew said the trains would feature less-expensive self-propelled rail cars, or diesel multiple units (DMUs), which are lighter than the traditional Talgo diesel locomotives used by Amtrak and freight trains and use biodiesel. A DMU train set costs about $20 million while a Talgo train set costs around $30 million, he said.
Agnew said the project is a follow-up to a previous study in 2005 by rail consulting firm Wilbur Smith & Associates that found there was a market, commuter interest and a “relatively modest capital expense” between $50 million to $100 million.
Since that time, he said there have been several improvements including the Swift crossing near Blaine, and a new train depot in Stanwood and improvements to Everett’s depot that would reduce those expenses even further.
Richard Sturgill, who headed the citizen group Blaine Coalition For Historic Preservation that worked to refurbish and relocate the historic train depot, said he would be happy if the city is able to save it.
“Indeed, if the station could be saved, I think that would be the best of both worlds,” he said. “We thought the best thing to do would be to move it because it sounded like BNSF was going to destroy it, but if that group can get the train to stop there, it’s a great idea. We just don’t want to see it be torn down.”
Agnew said Cascadia Center research team has planned a community meeting in Blaine in October to discuss the study with community members, but an official date hasn’t been set.
Findings from the study are expected to be available by the spring of next year, he said.
Editor's note: In a previous version of the story online, we mentioned the study examining the feasibility of expanding Everett's Sounder commuter train service to the Canadian border. Cascadia Center’s study is not to look at extending Sounder service, which would require an annex that would extend Sound Transit’s taxing district. Rather, it will look at increased passenger service that could include Blaine and would connect to — not extend -- Sounder in Everett, possibly through the use of DMUs (diesel multiple units).