In Our View, Jan. 29: Shunning the Slog

I-5 corridor from Portland to Seattle will be enhanced with rail improvements

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Countless motorists are familiar with the gloom, despair and agony of the “I-5 Slog.” OK, that might be a bit of an exaggeration. Driving in the Pacific Northwest often is a delightful experience, and even the Interstate 5 trek from Portland to Seattle can be tolerable for some folks.

Still, the ignominy of this trip has become so widespread that it has its own Web site: http://www.i-5slog.com. (Actually, it’s a clever promotional gimmick of Horizon Air, which offers itself as an alternative to “the longest 3-hour drive in American history.”)

In the 21st century, commuters and tourists need all the transportation alternatives they can get, and increasing numbers of passengers are shunning the slog and taking the train. That’s why we applaud Thursday’s announcement that almost $600 million in rail improvements between Portland and Seattle will be paid for by the federal government as part of a national $8 billion stimulus spending package.

Ours is one of just 13 major corridors that were awarded grants, and although the state’s original request for $1.3 billion was not met, the grant is large and should bring smiles to both train and freeway travelers. The grant will pay for projects that will increase the number of Amtrak passenger trains, reduce rail congestion, boost train speed and improve on-time reliability. Another huge economic boost will be the creation of an estimated 6,500 jobs in Washington, where 98 percent of the $598 million will be spent.

City-specific project details were not released Thursday, but the grant application included improvements at Vancouver’s Amtrak station and along various points of the rail line in Clark County. It’s safe to presume that much of that work will take place.

Critics can be expected to assail the grant on two fronts: their disagreement with federal stimulus spending and their belief that rail travel is a waste of money. To the first complaint, the logical response is that this region and this state have two choices on federal stimulus spending: compete and accept projects and improvements, or sit on the sidelines in protest while other areas of the nation benefit. The rail-improvement horse is out of the barn, that’s reality, and it’s good to see the Northwest becoming a player instead of a spectator.

As for the feasibility of rail travel, yes, there is a public subsidy. But that exists in all forms of transportation. And, according to state Department of Transportation statistics published in a 2007 Columbian editorial, Amtrak in Washington compares favorably with public bus systems when subsidies are compared on a per-passenger-mile-traveled basis. The average Amtrak ride in the state is 145 miles, with a public subsidy of 22 cents per passenger mile. Subsidies in public bus systems range from 70 cents to $1 per passenger mile.

Examined from the perspective of farebox revenue, Amtrak trains in this state cover 48.4 percent of operating costs with farebox revenue, and that percentage is about twice as high as what occurs in most bus systems. (With C-Tran, it’s about 24 percent).

Cost issues are crucial, but so is a long-term vision. “Anybody who travels the I-5 corridor in our state knows that we need to find new, efficient options to get commuters and commerce moving,” U.S. Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., said Thursday in a statement.

Washington and Oregon have Amtrak trains capable of traveling 125 mph. Currently they’re moving only up to 79 mph in some stretches because of infrastructure restraints. The new goal is 110 mph by 2017.

The infusion of federal money in the Northwest will mean more trains, traveling faster, arriving on time more often. Of course, that’s just a vision, but it looks much better than the status quo of the I-5 Slog.