In his first State of the Union address as president, Barack Obama urged Congress to pass a jobs bill, with a focus on improving the nation’s infrastructure.
“We can put Americans to work today building the infrastructure of tomorrow,” he said. “From the first railroads to the interstate highway system, our nation has always been built to compete. There’s no reason Europe or China should have the fastest trains, or the new factories that manufacture clean-energy products.
“Tomorrow,” Obama said, “I’ll visit Tampa, Florida, where workers will soon break ground on a new high-speed railroad funded by the Recovery Act. There are projects like that all across this country that will create jobs and help move our nation’s goods, services and information.”
A short time before the president addressed the nation, Gov. Chris Gregoire got a call from Ray LaHood, secretary of the U.S. Department of Transportation. He told the governor that Washington state was in line to receive $590 million of the $8 billion in rail-improvement dollars that would be distributed to 31 states.
It’s great news for Washington residents and rail passengers. The federal money is expected to create 6,500 family-wage jobs as tracks are refurbished, roadbeds are reworked and other improvements are made to allow two more Amtrak passenger train trips daily between Seattle and Portland. There now will be six trains daily between Vancouver, B.C. and Eugene, Ore. Those trains are limited to 79 miles per hour, but with the infusion of federal money, Washington can make progress toward a goal of 100 mph hour trains on the Interstate 5 parallel corridor by 2025.
In a news conference after the federal announcement, Gregoire called the $590 million investment unprecedented and historic. She noted that Washington got a large slice of the federal money set aside for high-speed intercity passenger rail improvements. The investment will increase the frequency and reliability of passenger trains, the governor said.
“These funds will offer great returns: We will put people to work and improve a transit service on which more and more Washingtonians rely,” Gregoire said. “Thanks to these investments, we will move more people, move them more efficiently and move them more reliably.”
Gregoire said that since 1994, nearly $1 billion in construction and operating funds have been invested in the Pacific Northwest rail corridor. Washington state alone has invested more than $331 million in support of high-speed passenger rail, and more than 700,000 travelers used the train last year.
Paula Hammond, secretary of the state Department of Transportation, said 6 million passenger trips have been logged on trains during the past 10 years and that ridership – even during today’s economic recession – is up 71 percent since 1999.
She said train travel is environmentally friendly, noting that trains are 18 percent more efficient than airplanes and 24 percent more efficient than automobiles.
Hammond said, “Our team is ready to get to work building these projects that will have real economic benefits by supporting and creating jobs, reducing rail line congestion, improving access to our ports and upgrading railroad crossings.”
Gregoire said that in addition to a great application for federal funding compiled by Hammond’s staff members, the support of the state’s congressional delegation was key in landing the $590 million.
Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., played a pivotal role, Gregoire said.
Murray recognizes that investment in rail has the potential to take some of the pressure off Intestate 5.
“Anybody who travels the I-5 corridor in our state knows that we need to find new, efficient options to get commuters and commerce moving,” she said. “And anybody interested in boosting our state’s economy knows that now is a great time to take action. Thankfully, Washington state and Oregon have already been working since the early 1990s to study and build faster rail service along the Cascade corridor. This funding is the opportunity we’ve been waiting for to help make these improvements a reality.”
This is, indeed, a historic step forward for Washington residents. Think about it. Governments at the federal and state levels have invested nearly $1 billion in the passenger rail line since 1994. Washington state got more than half that amount – $590 million – in a single day, in a single appropriation, from the federal stimulus package.
That will, as Gregoire said, let this state make huge improvements in the frequency, quickness and reliability of high-speed passenger rail service in the state.
It’s a good day, indeed.