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Originally published May 17, 2011 at 9:11 AM | Page modified May 17, 2011 at 2:37 PM

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Federal money to improve Amtrak Cascades train travel

When the Obama administration handed out billions in stimulus money for faster trains, new Republican governors Scott Walker of Wisconsin, John Kasich of Ohio and Rick Scott of Florida all said no thanks.

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quotes I am not thrilled about losing the AMTRAK routing along Commencement Bay. That is one... Read more
quotes Other governors are bluntly stating they turned down the money because they're worried... Read more
quotes The Cascade is a nice ride to Portland and it is far more convienent and cheaper than... Read more

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TACOMA, Wash. —

When the Obama administration handed out billions in stimulus money for faster trains, new Republican governors Scott Walker of Wisconsin, John Kasich of Ohio and Rick Scott of Florida all said no thanks.

Gov. Chris Gregoire was glad to take what they gave up.

"Why they've turned it away I have no idea, but that's good for the state of Washington," she said last week.

States competed for $8 billion from the 2009 stimulus law. Washington ended up with $750 million - an unprecedented amount, equalling three-quarters of what's been spent on passenger rail here over the past 17 years without federal help. Another $30 million came after Congress added to the pot. Washington received "more than our fair share," Gregoire acknowledged.

Federal officials are in Washington this week to start detailed planning on the projects.

It's known as high-speed rail money, but don't picture bullet trains zipping by at 200 mph. That's what's in the works for San Francisco and Los Angeles, at a cost of more than $40 billion. But here, none of the stimulus spending will move the Evergreen State any closer to true high-speed rail.

Instead, the money is aimed at making sure trains run on time.

Riding on the Cascades line through Western Washington, Amtrak passengers share the tracks with freight shipments. Frequent riders, including Lee Perry, know to count on extra time to sidestep slower freight trains.

In 2010, trains were on time fewer than 7 out of every 10 times on the Amtrak Cascades line through western Washington. The department's goal is to be on time 88 percent of the time, Washington State Department of Transportation spokeswoman Melanie Coon said.

"It really has a huge impact on ridership, so we really have got to get up those numbers," said WSDOT's rail and marine director, Scott Witt.

The federal money is supposed to help that happen. It also comes with requirements to add a fifth and sixth daily round trip between Seattle and Portland.

While D.C. picks up most of the tab for the projects in the works, the state will have to help keep the trains running once they're over. Witt said the cost of maintaining the improvements for 20 years, as the state has agreed to do, is somewhere between $50 million and $80 million.

Speeding up is a lower priority than becoming more dependable. Still, trips will get a bit quicker by 2017, when the last of the stimulus-funded work is to be finished. The state is supposed to reduce travel time between Seattle and Portland by at least 10 minutes - to three hours and 20 minutes.

Most of that time will be shaved by eliminating the winding route around Point Defiance and along Puget Sound, rerouting it onto tracks that make a straight shot through South Tacoma and Lakewood following Interstate 5.

On one or two stretches south of Puget Sound, upgrades may allow trains to briefly reach 90 mph, Witt said. But in most places, they will continue to reach top speeds of 79 mph.

At most, Witt said, speeds of 110 mph might one day be achieved. There are major hurdles to going faster than that, he said: the hundreds of curves in the current route and the cost of building and acquiring land for a new route.

"I won't say it won't (happen), because with enough money you can make anything happen," Witt said, "but the numbers are so big I personally can't see us getting to those levels."

If it does happen, it won't be on the track that's being upgraded now.

Perry, the rider from Thurston County, would like to see a high-speed train zipping through Washington. He's impressed by the state's emphasis on rail and hopes it becomes more of a national priority. It's a more efficient use of energy, he said.

"I would actually like to see a high-speed train cross country, which people could take instead of the plane," he said, "like Europe has."

The nation's first truly high-speed train was supposed to be built between Tampa and Orlando in Florida. Less expensive and ambitious projects were planned to link Milwaukee and Madison, Wis., and to connect Cleveland, Columbus and Cincinnati in Ohio.

But GOP governors in those states came into office and killed the projects, citing worries about future costs.

Opponents predicted cost overruns. There were also debates about the wisdom of states taking on the cost of operating the projects once they are built.

In Washington, the state's costs will go up with extra train trips - but so will the number of paying riders, supporters hope.

Ticket sales on Amtrak Cascades grew by 10 percent in 2010 from the year before, to a record 838,251 passengers.

Transportation tax sources, meanwhile, have been drying up, something state lawmakers are hoping voters will reverse in 2012 by approving higher taxes.

By taking the stimulus money, "You are theoretically opening yourselves up to some pretty big obligations," said Wendell Cox, a researcher in St. Louis who authored critical studies of some projects elsewhere, including the Florida bullet train in a study cited when Gov. Scott shut down the project. Cox, who grew up in Portland and Shelton, hasn't studied the Washington projects.

"You are now on the hook for running those trains ... regardless of ridership," he said.

Supporters say some of the upgrades using stimulus funds might actually lower the cost of maintenance, though.

As for cost overruns, Witt said federal and state officials are doing heavy analysis of risks, and should be able to detect overruns early on. If those happen, projects will be scaled back to a "bare minimum" or taken from other projects, he said.

Unlike in some states, the trains enjoy bipartisan support in Washington. GOP lawmakers haven't fought to reject the stimulus money for rail. Gregoire on Monday signed a transportation budget that counted on the money and was approved 87-9 in the House and 39-9 in the Senate.

It's not the cost that has attracted controversy, but the route. Lakewood and DuPont officials have protested the planned Point Defiance bypass, worried about Amtrak trains speeding through their neighborhoods and business districts.

The state has concluded it has to do a detailed traffic study on the $91 million project, which has pushed back its projected finish date until at least 2016.

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