What do you know! After nearly three years of study, the Oregon Passenger Rail project has concluded that the best route between Eugene and Portland is the existing rail line between Eugene and Portland. But is this final? Hah, you dreamer! No, it’s preliminary. More study to follow.
This study, funded by about $10 million in state and federal funds, was launched in late 2012 to see about improvements in passenger rail service up and down the Willamette Valley. Several potential new routes were considered and eventually rejected, including one through Corvallis and other points on the west side of the valley.
Then the study’s leadership council of elected officials, including Albany Mayor Sharon Konopa, picked two alternatives for more detailed analysis. One would have routed train service along a new track along Interstate 5 from Springfield to Oregon City. The other was to use the main line of the Union Pacific, the one that Amtrak trains now use, and to make improvements there. This is the route that railroad engineers picked in the 19th century, and now it’s the preferred alternative in the current study.
Unfortunately, as the study team says in a recent news announcement, “the recommendation is not a final decision — all alternatives will be analyzed in the DEIS (draft environmental impact statement) before a Final Preferred Alternative is identified.” The draft statement is not due until late in 2016. But that still is not the final step. Public hearings will be held on the draft. And only then will this painfully prolonged process finally conclude.
Then what? Then Oregon can apply for federal funds to make the improvements needed so more trains can run and cover the distance in less less time. But it’s possible passenger rail will have died by then, at least in the state-sponsored Cascade service, because the legislature is unlikely to fund it again unless ridership shows a sharp rise. To improve the passenger count, ODOT-Rail has just rescheduled the morning train from Eugene north so people can catch it later and take it all the way to Seattle.
I hope that works. But more will be needed. More aggressive promotion, for instance. Have you lately seen anything telling the public about the merits of the Cascade trains? (hh)