Port of Vancouver project receives $15 million from feds

By Eric Florip, Columbian transportation & environment reporter

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A Port of Vancouver rail access project has secured $15 million in federal funds as part of a larger grant for Washington railway improvements, the U.S. Department of Transportation announced Wednesday.

The money will help the port construct a new rail access route and revamp an existing crossing to reduce rail traffic congestion. The changes aim to minimize delays for both freight trains and Amtrak’s Cascades passenger service that stretches from Eugene, Ore., to British Columbia, passing through Vancouver.

“If we can take congestion off this regional rail system, then we can increase efficiency for high-speed rail,” said Theresa Wagner, the port’s communications manager.

Port officials learned about the federal grant in May, Wagner said. Wednesday’s formal announcement came after finalizing financial details and environmental work that will allow the project to move forward, she said. The project will send a new rail access line underneath the Columbia River railroad bridge to keep from interrupting traffic on the main line, Wagner said. Construction will begin next year, according to the U.S. Department of Transportation.

10-year investment

The project carries a total price tag of $38 million. It’s a “key component” of the West Vancouver Freight Access project, a massive 21-phase, 10-year investment into port railroad facilities that began in 2007. The port is still seeking funding for the remaining portions of the $150 million project, set to be completed in 2017.

That effort aims to reduce rail congestion by 40 percent, Wagner said. Portions of the project already completed — including a $14 million loop track near the port’s Terminal 5, finished last year — have dropped congestion by some 25 percent already, she said.

The work is also intended to attract new private investments at the port while helping existing tenants.

The Port of Vancouver wasn’t the only beneficiary of the $31 million in rail funding announced Wednesday. A $16.1 million chunk will pay for track improvements on the rail line between Vancouver and Blaine, near the Canadian border, which is also used by Cascades passenger trains. Those upgrades are intended to improve reliability and reduce closures and delays caused by winter weather.

The Cascades service is one of Amtrak’s fastest-growing routes. Ridership jumped 10 percent in 2010, carrying 838,251 total passengers, according to the U.S. Department of Transportation. Ridership is on track to be even higher in 2011.

Eric Florip: 360-735-4541 or eric.florip@columbian.com.