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Originally published January 27, 2010 at 9:02 PM | Page modified January 28, 2010 at 11:02 AM

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Washington to get $590 million for high-speed rail improvements

The federal government will spend $590 million in stimulus money to improve high-speed rail in Western Washington.

Seattle Times transportation reporter

The federal government will spend $590 million in stimulus money to improve rail travel times from Blaine to Portland.

The money represents the Northwest's piece of an $8 billion stimulus package for high-speed rail, to be announced Thursday in Florida by President Obama.

Only two-thirds of passenger trains run on time on the 3 ½-hour trip between Seattle and Portland, and the state is trying to boost that number to 90 percent. A series of small projects throughout Western Washington — some but not all of which the stimulus money would pay for — would save an estimated 833 hours of delays annually, according to the state. Ridership peaked in 2008 with 775,000 riders.

"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. And anybody interested in boosting our state's economy knows that now is a great time to take action," said a statement from Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash.

Murray, chairwoman of the Senate Transportation Appropriations Committee, has talked at least four times with Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood about funding the Pacific Northwest Cascades corridor — stressing that rail could reduce congestion on nearby Interstate 5, a spokesman for the senator said Wednesday.

Thirteen high-speed-rail lines serving 31 states will receive money, including $8 million for Oregon to improve trackways and Portland's Union Station.

Five round-trip Amtrak trains run between Seattle and Portland each day. Only two go between Seattle and Vancouver, B.C., so buses fill out the route. Delays caused by freight-train traffic, and various accidents or obstructions, are common.

Washington state had sought $1.3 billion to fund 26 rail projects from border to border, to prepare for eventually running eight round-trip trains to Oregon. Several projects already include at least partial funding from state tax increases in the 2000s.

The federal stimulus money is devoted mainly to corridors of 100 to 600 miles, in hopes the trains become fast enough to substitute for airplane and car travel.

In the Cascades corridor from Blaine to Eugene, the long-term goal is speeds in the 90 mph to 120 mph range, said the administration's national rail plan, published last year.

Years ago, Washington and Oregon purchased Talgo trains capable of 125 mph, because of advanced suspension systems that lean into curves. But they are constrained to 79 mph because of congestion, street crossings and flaws in the trackways.

Along with better reliability, travel time from Seattle to Portland is supposed to improve 5 percent [about 10 minutes] as a result of the new projects, the White House said.

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Stimulus projects here will include "positive train control," a safety system that will stop or slow trains if they get too close to each other. The lack of PTC is one reason for today's 79 mph speed limit.

Long-term, the state and federal vision is for "a dedicated high speed track, where trains will operate at up to 150 mph, with 13 daily round trips between Seattle and Portland, the administration says.

Examples of the many proposed high-speed upgrades include:

• Blaine: a siding track where freight trains can be inspected at the Canadian border without blocking passenger trains.

• Blaine to Everett: reconstruction of tracks, ties and ballast to improve ride quality.

• Seattle King Street Station: seismic retrofits.

• Tacoma: new and upgraded trackways through the city, so Amtrak trains can head directly south instead of looping around Point Defiance. (This will seem like a drawback to many Amtrak riders who love the Puget Sound views and passage beneath the Narrows bridges, but the new Tacoma route also would shave six minutes from the trip and allow a Sounder commuter-train extension to Lakewood.)

• Kelso: a new siding track where grain trains entering the nearby Port of Kalama can wait without obstructing the mainline.

• Vancouver, Wash.: bypass tracks to avoid a large freight yard, moving passenger trains through 2 ½ times faster.

The $8 billion in federal spending is only a fraction of last year's $787 billion stimulus plan, and several regions have rail desires that far exceed the stimulus money.

For instance, California voters in 2008 approved $10 billion in bonds toward a $45 billion bullet train from the Bay Area and Sacramento to Los Angeles and San Diego, to be a public-private partnership. This week's award adds $2.25 billion, leaving a huge gap. California had asked for twice that much stimulus, arguing that its project is the only one aspiring to world-class, 220 mph train speeds.

Florida is getting $1.3 billion to start a line between Tampa and Orlando that is supposed to reach 168 mph, a White House project list says.

The administration will add $1 billion for each of the next five years, calling that money "a down payment to jump start the program," said a statement, which notes that the interstate highway system took four decades to complete.

Mike Lindblom: 206-515-5631 or mlindblom@seattletimes.com

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