Rail advocates discuss return to passenger service

By on Thursday, December 23rd, 2021 in Columbia Basin News More Top Stories

Experts and advocates from Oregon, Washington and Montana met virtually this month to discuss how to strengthen communities with passenger rail. The event, hosted by All Aboard Washington, a nonprofit rail advocacy group, also brought together community leaders and elected officials who spoke in bipartisan support about the economic, environmental and equity benefits passenger rail can provide.

The focus of the meeting was to discuss re-establishing passenger rail service in communities that have not been served in decades. One such service would connect Eastern Oregon to Seattle, Boise, and Salt Lake City. The other would connect the Kittitas and Yakima Valleys with Seattle, Spokane, and destinations to the east in Montana, North Dakota, and Minnesota before making its final stop in Chicago. Both lines are planned for inclusion in a study of previous Amtrak lines that is to be conducted by the U.S. Department of Transportation and funded through the recently passed Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act.

Oregon Sen. Chris Gorsek (D-Troutdale) explained there are already 18 Oregon legislators, both Republicans and Democrats, in the newly-formed Oregon Rail Caucus. He emphasized the importance of reestablishing the Amtrak Pioneer route that operated from 1977 to 1997 and ran between Seattle and Chicago via Portland, Boise, Salt Lake City and Denver. It was the last passenger route to serve Eastern Oregon, Southern Idaho, and Wyoming.

“Restoration of the Pioneer is important because in the last 20-plus years, there has been a lot of development in the cities that line served,” Gorsek said. “We need to move toward environmentally-friendly services, and rail will be a big part of that in the future.”

In Washington, Alan Adolf from the Yakima Valley Conference of Governments said in a recent survey, nearly 90 percent said they would ride a train if service was available in Central Washington. He also said the estimates for returning service to the Yakima Valley are high, since communities such as Toppenish and Ellensburg have existing depots that would require only modest investments to return them to passenger service.

Yakima Mayor Patricia Byers added that passenger rail service would enhance tourism opportunities.

“It’s such a relaxing, enjoyable means of travel. It would also enhance local transit connections between the upper and lower valley,” she added.

Washington Rep. Andrew Barkis (R-Olympia) said he will be working with the state Legislative Caucus on ways to fund rail in the 2022 legislative session, but that it would face budget challenges.