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Federal Spending on Upgrades to Passenger Railways in Pacific Northwest Spark Controversy

Image via Flickr by brewbrooks

The high-speed rail program spearheaded by President Obama was intended to improve access to and service by passenger trains to commuters in the Pacific Northwest, specifically in the state of Washington between Seattle and Vancouver, British Columbia. However, the same railways used for Amtrak’s commuter trains are shared by freight trains, owned by BNSF Railway, which haul coal, oil, and other materials to refineries in the region. Though the Sierra Club and other environmental groups supported the upgrades to passenger railways, they are angered that the same railway upgrades will benefit freight transportation as well. Additionally, the $10.1 billion in upgrades were supposed to be used to create high-speed railways for passenger trains, which are supposed to be capable of running at speeds of 110 mph. But even after the upgrades along the Pacific Northwest railway are complete, passenger trains will still be able to travel no faster than 75 mph.

Among the upgrades funded through Obama’s program include:

  • $146 million toward new rails, ties, and roadbeds, which will benefit both passenger and freight trains
  • $123 million for a third track heading into and out of the Port of Longview, which will allow passenger trains to pass by slower freight trains, speeding the commute
  • $70 million toward upgrading and extending a passing siding at the Port of Kalama, which will allow passenger trains to pass slow or parked freight trains, speeding the commute
  • $16 million to reduce delays caused by landslides between Everett, Washington and Seattle, Washington. These improvements will benefit both passenger and freight trains

In addition to the funds from the U.S. government, the BNSF track upgrades are being partially funded by the state of Washington. The project is expected to be completed by the year 2017. BNSF spokespersons and press releases have been clear all along that these upgrades will benefit their freight services as well as the Amtrak passenger trains which share the tracks along that corridor.

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