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February 16, 2011 at 12:39 PM

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Washington DOT covets Florida high-speed rail money

Posted by Mike Lindblom

Four decades ago, voters in Seattle narrowly turned down a rapid-transit plan in the 1970 election, prompting the federal government to shift $900 million in rail funds to Atlanta, to launch its MARTA network.

This time, it's Washington state that hankers to spend rail money earmarked for the South.

Florida Gov. Rick Scott on Wednesday decided to reject $2.4 billion in federal stimulus aid for an Orlando-to-Tampa rail route. He cited the "potential for significant capital and operating cost overruns." Scott went on to list several port and freeway improvements he believes would bring more benefit.

UPDATE: Federal Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood will hold talks in hopes of saving the Florida high-speed project, Transport Nation just reported.

Soon afterward, Washington Gov. Chris Gregoire on Wednesday reiterated that if other states don't want federal dollars for passenger rail, Washington would be glad to take them.

This happened before. After Wisconsin and Ohio spurned high-speed rail grants worth $1.2 billion, Washington state's Amtrak Cascades corridor reaped a $162 million share of the unused funds, on top of $590 million in earlier stimulus aid.

An average 2,205 people a day rode Amtrak trains between Seattle and Portland, or parts of the route, last year, the state reports. There are four Cascades trains and one Coast Starlight trip each direction daily.

The Obama Administration's official term "high-speed rail" is somewhat misleading, as the program here doesn't remotely resemble French and Japanese trains, or the Shanghai Maglev, which reach or exceed 200 mph.

Washington state's project calls for numerous improvements worth $1.4 billion throughout the mainline, which is owned by BNSF Railway. Amtrak and Sound Transit pay BNSF for access to the freight rails, except for a new bypass line being developed in south Tacoma.

Each improvement on WashDOT's list is meant to save a few minutes and improve reliability. For instance, bypass track is to be built in Vancouver, Wash., so passenger trains can go around stopped freight trains.

As a condition of winning more federal aid, the state, Amtrak and BNSF are negotiating a new "service outcome agreement," to be done in about a month, DOT program manager Ron Pate said. Stimulus improvements should help too, he said. "That's the goal of the program, to get us out of 'unreliable service,' as you describe it," said Pate. On-time performance is currently around 76 percent.

The original $590 million grant funds 11 projects, from rolling stock to bypass tracks to seismic retrofits at Seattle's historic King Street Station. The goal is to enable two more round-trip daily trains, reduce the current 3 1/2 hour trip by at least 10 minutes, and improve reliability, which "really is the key piece," said spokeswoman Melanie Coon. If WashDOT carries out the full $1.4 billion program, there would be a total nine Seattle-Portland roundtrip trains.

According to Gregoire, ridership on Cascades increased 10 percent last year. Her statement:

I've said many times, if other states don't want this funding, Washington state is ready to put it to work. We've been committed to expanding and improving high-speed passenger rail not just to increase convenience for passengers, but to promote Washington state as a great place to visit and live. These rail lines take cars off our roads while moving workers and tourists between Seattle, Portland and Vancouver, B.C. These federal funds are an investment in our economy, and support hundreds of construction and operating jobs in our state."

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Jim Brunner
Covers politics.

Keith Ervin
Covers the Eastside.

Andrew Garber
Covers politics and state government from Olympia.

Emily Heffter
Covers local government.

Mike Lindblom
Covers transportation.

Kyung Song
Covers politics and regional issues from Washington, D.C.

Lynn Thompson
Covers Seattle City Hall.

Bob Young
Covers King County and urban affairs.