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Originally published Thursday, May 28, 2009 at 12:00 AM

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Stimulus funds wanted for improved rail line

The Washington state Department of Transportation will angle for more than $800 million in federal stimulus funds to help finance an ambitious overhaul of rail lines that run from the Canadian border south to the Columbia River.

Seattle Times staff reporter

PORTLAND — The Washington state Department of Transportation will angle for more than $800 million in federal stimulus funds to help finance an ambitious overhaul of rail lines that run from the Canadian border south to the Columbia River.

The money would be used to double service from Seattle to Portland from four to eight round-trips daily, reduce late arrivals and help lay the groundwork for a corridor where trains could run up to 110 miles per hour.

At that top speed, trains might make the trip from Seattle to Portland in about 2.5 hours rather than the current 3.5 hours, according to Kirk Frederickson, a state transportation-department rail specialist who outlined the plans at a meeting organized here Wednesday by Cascadia Discovery Institute, based in Washington.

Washington will be bidding for a share of the $8 billion in federal stimulus funds that will be available to finance state improvements of passenger rail. State officials will submit their requests this summer and won't know how much money they will receive until sometime this fall.

"It will depend on the quality of our grant application," Frederickson said. "Is it (more than $800 million) unreasonable? No. But there are a lot of people who will be competing for a share of those funds, and we'll just have to see."

The federal funds would pile on top of a state effort to improve rails, with $98 million allocated for a two-year period that ends in fiscal year 2011, according to Frederickson.

The rail investments would be used to reroute passenger trains around congested freight yards, develop a shorter route along Interstate 5 south of Tacoma rather than the current route farther west, purchase new trains and make other improvements. State officials also are hoping that the Canadian federal government steps up to support a second daily train service to Vancouver, B.C.

Elsewhere in the world, trains run at speeds as high as 220 mph. But here in the Northwest, the goal appears to be a more modest 110 mph, a speed that could be reached by trains that currently run between Vancouver, B.C., and Eugene, Ore., if tracks and other infrastructure are improved enough to gain federal approval.

The next round of proposed improvements wouldn't do enough to allow the higher speeds. But they would cut about six minutes off the current travel time between Seattle and Portland.

Frederickson cautioned that high-speed trains could face resistance from some residents near the tracks who have safety concerns and community outreach would be important.

Hal Bernton: 206-464-2581 or hbernton@seattletimes.com

Copyright © 2009 The Seattle Times Company

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