Having a Blaine Amtrak stop may sound good to locals, but it is not something that the Washington State Department of Transportation (WSDOT) is ready to act on just yet.
On May 30, WSDOT representatives came to Blaine to give an update on the process for creating the state rail plan – a plan which includes both freight and passenger rail and fulfills federal and state requirements for funding – and to seek input on what the community would like to see included in the future.
The three-hour public workshop included an overview of the current state rail plan and group brainstorming to identify local
needs that should be considered in the 2035 state rail plan.
“Rail is a big part of Whatcom’s history,” said Kerri Woehler, WSDOT strategic assessment manager. “A lot of its communities were developed on or around rail activity, so we want to get your thoughts and ideas about what the new state rail plan should include.”
Although WSDOT is open to suggestions, they make no promises that a train stop in Blaine will actually happen.
“We have a lot of communities that have approached us about a stop,” said Woehler. “We’re grateful that there are so many communities so excited about the service, but we have to analyze the market conditions for the entire service, how it grows over time and how new stops fit into that analysis.”
WSDOT has begun a $300,000 feasibility study using the city of Auburn as its subject, per a legislative request. WSDOT hopes to use the analysis to determine the criteria for new stations and stops.
“It’s a pretty extensive effort to get this kind of work done,” said Cascades rail corridor director Ron Pate. “We have to look at the specifics to assess the feasibility of a stop. There’s a number of things to consider.”
Pate said that the Auburn analysis allows them to examine the effects a new stop would have on other trains on the route, customer demand and how ridership might change, station suitability and fiscal viability of the stop. “The purpose of the study is not to say yes or no to a station,” he said. “It’s to develop evaluation criteria and get some feedback.”
“We want to make sure we are delivering consistently and on-time,” Woehler added. “New stops have ripple effects, and we
have to consider the entire Cascades service as a whole when we look at adding new stops. We have to know what the costs are and what constitutes sufficient demand to warrant it.”
No such analysis has been planned for the city of Blaine, Woehler said, to the chagrin of those present at the meeting. “There’s just no funding,” Pate added. “The state only has so many resources.”
City manager Gary Tomsic expressed his frustration during the meeting. “I’m disappointed that this isn’t a little higher priority,” he said. “If you’re really interested in increasing ridership, you have an undeveloped resource of customers right here that I’m guessing is a heck of a lot bigger than what is portrayed on your maps. Just look at what has happened at the Bellingham airport because of customers from the lower mainland making the decision to fly out of Bellingham rather than deal with Vancouver.”
Blaine City Council member Bonnie Onyon agreed. “Why can’t you have B.C. as a partner?” she asked. “We’re so interconnected it makes sense.” Pate said they have had no discussion with B.C. about funding.
Some audience members suggested that the city should fund a feasibility study on its own, but Tomsic disagreed. “Why should we have to do it?” he asked.
Resident Ron Snyder pointed out that such a study might be considered biased. “It would be a study done for Blaine by Blaine and it would end up in the same drawer where all the other biased studies are tossed,” he said.
But Woehler disagrees with that premise. In a later phone interview, she said that it’s not a bad idea to take that approach to get the ball rolling.
“There’s a lot of work that has to be done before we can take any steps,” she said. “But I think the community should take the lead in making its own case. We think there’s value in having the city do that. WSDOT would, of course, have to do a subsequent analysis to look at the particulars, but we understand that there’s a lot of interest in Blaine for a stop.”
In a phone interview, Onyon said that expending those kind of resources for a study would not be feasible for Blaine. “There’s no way we could do that,” she said. “It sounds like a duplication of efforts to me. Blaine spends the money, WSDOT spends the money. I agree with Gary – why should we have to spend the money on something they should be doing? There will be further discussion, but I know we don’t have that kind of money to expend on a study.”
WSDOT received nearly $800 million in federal money as part of the 2009 American Recovery and Reinvestment Act high-speed rail program administered by the Federal Railroad Administration.
The funds are slated for high-speed rail projects in the corridor that must be completed by 2017 and have been earmarked for creating two additional daily routes between Seattle and Portland as well as track and route improvements that will increase on-time performance and reduce overall travel time by 10 minutes. Woehler said that she doesn’t anticipate any route changes outside of the current plan’s mandates before 2017.
“That’s our priority right now,” said Woehler. “It’s non-negotiable. We’ve signed a contract for those funds and we have to make good on that commitment before we can move forward with the next plan. There will be a lot of construction on the tracks, and right now it just doesn’t make sense to add stops.”
The 2035 plan will be the first time WSDOT looks at freight and passenger rail as an integrated system.
“All our services use the same infrastructure, so it makes sense to look at them at the same time,” said Woehler. “As we move forward, we have to consider the needs of both entities.”
WSDOT partners with Burlington Northern Santa Fe and Union Pacific railroads to deliver the Amtrak service. “They own the infrastructure and allow us to use it, but ultimately they’re trying to run a business and that’s a whole different model than trying to run a government organization,” said Pate. “They think it’s great that we have this 5- or 20-year plan, but BNSF can change their plan in 5 minutes if they need to.”
Information and input from the workshop will be compiled into a summary report over the next few months and will be posted on WSDOT’s website for review.
The 2035 plan is scheduled to be published this year and then will be up for public comment.
For more information about the state rail plan, contact Woehler at 360/705-6902 or visit wsdot.wa.gov/rail