One state's bad dream about fast trains

Posted by Fred Frailey
on Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Washington state’s ambitious, $1 billion plan to improve and speed up rail passenger service between Seattle and Portland, Ore., appears dead in the water, in more ways than one. The immediate danger is a move by congressional Republicans to take back $4.5 billion in high speed rail grants that haven’t already been distributed to recipient states. Washington’s $751 million grant from last year is caught in that trap, and a vote is scheduled in the U.S. House of Representatives later this week.

But why blame budget-cutting Republicans for the loss of this money? The parties themselves — the Federal Railroad Administration and Amtrak on one side, and Washington State Department of Transportation and BNSF Railway on the other — are at an impasse in negotiating terms of that grant. So says Paula Hammond, Washington state secretary of transportation, in a blunt letter sent last week to Federal Railroad Administrator Joe Szabo.
Washington’s project involves building bypass tracks in both Tacoma and Vancouver, Wash., new or longer sidings, improvements to enhance reliability, an advanced signal system, and a new trainset. When finished, the state could add two more Amtrak Cascades round trips on faster schedules, in addition to the present four and Amtrak’s Coast Starlight. The 186-mile double-track route also hosts Sounder commuter trains north of Tacoma, and around 40 freight trains from BNSF Railway and tenant Union Pacific.
After months of negotiations, and of having numerous agreements by the state and railroad on future “service outcomes” rejected by FRA, the parties are deadlocked over what could charitably be called minutia: whose account of delays to trains will be accepted. FRA, with Amtrak’s backing, wants delay reports filed by Amtrak conductors to be the controlling source. Washington and BNSF insist on using the railroad’s delay reporting data. Conductors’ reports reveal the immediate cause of a delay, whereas BNSF’s data might reveal a different underlying cause. So while the conductor might report a 30-minute delay before an opposing freight train passes as freight train interference, the railroad could report the root cause as being a derailed car 50 miles away.

 Apparently this matters an awful lot to both sides. Neither will give. Confesses Hammond in her letter to Szabo: “We simply don’t understand your position.” She goes on to say, “Unless we can resolve this issue, I believe we have reached impasse.”
The grant would flow through Washington state to BNSF Railway, to pay for infrastructure improvements. BNSF’s responsibility is to run the specified passenger trains on agreed-upon schedules without exceeding a certain number of minutes of delays that are within its control. According to some sources, there is no target figure for on-time arrivals in the service outcomes agreement being negotiated. Instead, these sources say, should BNSF exceed the delay ceiling over time, the state or Amtrak could take it to arbitration, and ultimately to court, to force it to bring delays under its control to within the agreed-upon limits. Only if the passenger trains all ceased to operate would Washington state be required to pay back the grant on a prorated basis.
Secretary Hammond doesn’t see things that way. In her letter to Szabo, she states her belief that if performance goals aren’t achieved, one of them she contends being 88 percent on-time performance, Washington state “is liable for all costs necessary to accomplish those goals or face a prorated payback penalty.” For that reason, she says she wants to negotiate a separate outcomes agreement with Amtrak to hold it accountable for delays traceable to its equipment, employees, and passengers.
There’s no way to put a smiley face on this imbroglio. In effect, the parties cannot even agree on what it is they disagree about. This story resembles an updated version of Alice In Wonderland.

But it’s all moot if the grant is withdrawn by Congress. Odds are that the House will approve taking back that $4.5 billion in unobligated money for high speed rail. The rescission is a very small part of legislation that will fund the entire federal government for the last seven months of fiscal 2011, which ends in September. Present funding authorization ends in early March. Democrats hold a three-vote majority in the U.S. Senate, where this legislation would go next. It’s conceivable that the funding legislation will pass the Senate with the high speed rail takeback still attached to it. In that event, President Obama would face an unhappy choice: Veto the bill and shut down the government over a relatively small matter, or sign it and let political opponents harpoon one of his key initiatives.

When asked for comment, Federal Railroad Administrator Joseph Szabo said, "We consider WashDOT one of our most respected partners and look forward to assisting them in securing a Stakeholder Agreement that protects and balances the public and private interests."  — Fred W. Frailey


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