Politics & Government

State seeks a billion more in stimulus dollars

Washington state is going after another $1 billion in federal stimulus money, including funding to pay for a couple projects that will speed up Amtrak passenger trains by letting them bypass the scenic-but-congested route around Point Defiance.

The state Department of Transportation submitted an application earlier this week for $435 million that would pay for 20 rail projects along what is called the “high speed” corridor between Eugene, Ore. and Vancouver, B.C. At the top of that list are two projects in the Tacoma-Pierce County area:

 • $34.4 million to finish the D Street to M Street rail connection in Tacoma that will benefit both Amtrak passenger trains and Sounder commuter rail. That’s a project that will cross Pacific Avenue between South 25th and 26th streets and will allow Sounder to cover the eight miles between downtown Tacoma and the Lakewood Sounder station.

 • $91.3 million to build 3.5 miles of new track and replace 10.5 miles of old railroad tracks on the main line that runs from Nisqually through Lakewood and South Tacoma. The double-track sections will allow passenger trains to pass each other instead of creating a bottleneck along the route.

That second, larger project also would let Amtrak shut down its current station on Puyallup Avenue and move to a new station in the Freighthouse Square shopping center complex. The complex is next to the Sounder commuter rail tracks.

By Oct. 1, Washington’s DOT plans to ask for another batch of federal funds that would boost the state’s total request for rail money to $1 billion. There’s only $8 billion of federal stimulus money available for this round of applications and the total amount requested by all states is $108 billion.

“I think it’s fair to say that we would not be awarded all of it,” Andrew Wood, deputy director of DOT’s Rail and Marine Division, said of Washington’s $1 billion request.

Federal rules say no single state can get more than 20 percent of the $8 billion total, he said. Washington’s $1 billion request amounts to only 12.5 percent of the total so it falls within that limitation, he noted, only half in jest.

Even so, the chances of getting money for several projects are good, Wood said. Washington and Oregon have a long-established high-speed corridor and has been working to improve it for decades. Washington also pays for additional passenger trains to supplement the Amtrak service.

“We’re a long-established corridor and our long-range plans have been out there for a long time,” Wood said. “A lot of our competitors have only just started getting their plans together.”

The $8 billion is part of the $787 billion economic stimulus package that Congress approved earlier this year. Washington already has gotten more than $3 billion, mostly for Medicaid and education. Moreover, the state has gotten millions of dollars for additional unemployment benefits, home insulation, food banks and law enforcement. Most of those funds were given to states based on their population or other formulas.

In this second half of the stimulus package, states must compete with one another for additional funds.

The Point Defiance Bypass project has been on DOT’s project list for a long time, but still isn’t fully funded. A more direct route for passenger trains would shave six minutes off the travel time for Amtrak Cascades trains between Seattle and Portland. Passenger trains would not have to compete with freight trains that also use the single-track line around Point Defiance through the Nelson-Bennett and Ruston tunnels.

“It’s very heavily congested there, with trains stopping one behind the other to get into the Port (of Tacoma),” Wood said. “Sometimes you can’t get a passenger train through there.

After the bypass is built, freight trains would continue to use the Point Defiance tracks and passenger train service will become much more reliable because Amtrak and Sounder trains will have the new and improved inland tracks from Nisqually to Freighthouse Square pretty much to themselves, he said.

Wood said he expects to hear from the Federal Railroad Administration by Oct. 2 as to which of Washington’s projects win federal funding. That also is the date to submit applications for a second round of projects, the projects that would boost Washington’s total application to $1 billion.

All of the projects on Washington’s $435 million list would be ready to go to construction within 90 days of getting the federal funds, he said. It would take about two years to finish the Point Defiance and Pacific Avenue projects, he said. The total list of projects is expected to create between 4,000 and 5,000 jobs.

High-speed corridors are those in which trains can reach speeds of up to 110 mph in the short term and 150 mph by 2030. The current maximum speed allowed under federal law for that stretch is 79 mph.