Sunday, January 5, 2014

Passenger Rail Project Team Narrows Alternatives for I-5 Corridor

Wouldn't more frequent service be great?!
The Oregon Passenger Rail Experience has narrowed the field! Last month two alternatives advanced to the next stage of the DEIS.

Two alternatives advance to DEIS:
Alt 1 = Existing Amtrak/UP alignment
Alt 2 = Combo of I-5 (south) and Oregon Electric (north) alignment
(full map and discussion here)
Wouldn't real service be nice?
From the blurb:
On Dec. 17 2013, the Leadership Council made a recommendation on which rail route alternatives should receive more detailed study in the Draft Environmental Impact Statement. The recommendation includes two primary routes: 1) the existing corridor (shown as the blue alternative) which assumes major infrastructure investment and shadows the current Amtrak service alignment; and 2) a new corridor alternative (shown as the orange alternative), which is a combination of the red, purple, and blue preliminary alternatives. The recommendations include a number of considerations, including the technical evaluation findings, guidance from the Federal Railroad Administration, maintenance considerations, and feedback from agency stakeholders and the broad public.

Interestingly, a correspondent recently shared a critique of the whole project:
It costs too much. A round trip ticket to Portland only costs about $24, but taxpayers put up about $70 for each round trip just for operating expenses. This doesn’t include the cost of trains ($36million+), stations, or track improvements. ODOT’s passenger rail alternatives are likely to cost over $3billion. This would amount to an additional taxpayer subsidy of over $200 for every ticket sold for the next 25 years using the ridership estimates of the 2010 ODOT study.

Passenger rail does not and will not affect traffic congestion on I-5. In 2012, the Salem train station averaged about 180 passengers per day getting on or off the train, that is less than 0.2% of the people that travel on I-5 past Market Street each day. Doubling, tripling, even having ten times as many people riding the train would not have a noticeable effect on traffic congestion on I-5. More trains will cause substantially more congestion on local streets but will not reduce the need to improve I-5.

Passenger trains are not an effective way to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. A recent study by Sightline Institute compared CO2 emissions per passenger mile for various methods of travel. Riding a train has about the same emissions as driving a Prius alone. Train travel has about three times the green house gas emissions as riding an intercity bus. If you take three passengers with you in a big SUV, you are probably producing CO2 at the same rate per passenger mile as riding a train. We have better alternatives to reducing I-5 congestion and reducing green house gas emissions. than subsidizing railroads.
There exists the uncomfortable possibility that the passenger rail project is as much of an expensive fantasy as a third giant bridge and highway across the Willamette.

But trains!

There's no romance in buses and bus rapid transit.

Anyway, there's a large body of debate over rail vs. bus.  Here for example is a Cato Institute (libertarian/conservative) critique of claims about greenhouse gas reduction by rail and more posts on rail-skepticism.  Here's PortlandTransport posts on bus rapid transit.  And here's Jarrett Walker on BRT (though I haven't seen confirmation yet on this, Walker was going to be engaged by Cherriots for a system analysis here).  Lots of folks have some degree of question about the cost/benefit ratio on commuter/passenger rail.  The google will turn up even more.

Stryker Armored Vehicles passing by the Esplanade
Rail is not a core interest here - except insofar as rail lines do tend to disrupt a city's internal circulation for people on foot, on bike, and in cars; and the railroads have successfully offloaded the cost for bridging rail lines with under/overpasses onto municipalities and states.  So there is some ambivalence and concern about rail here.

At the same time, train's a very nice way to travel up and down the I-5 corridor.

Have you followed the process more closely?  Do you have a strong opinion either way on the rail project?  What strikes you about these alternatives?

(For all posts on the Passenger Rail project see here.)

2 comments:

Curt said...

Amtrak actually runs more buses along the route than trains. So the frequency of service has actually improved. My limited experience is that they are operating at or near capacity. I have heard from reliable sources that the buses pay for themselves while the trains do not. The buses do the job, but the trains are definitely a higher quality experience.

I done some research to guide my own mode choice to and from Portland. Using AAA per mile costs, I figured that Amtrak's rack rate costs about the same as driving alone. But you can buy a 10 ride pass that brings each ride down to $8.30. If and when I have to start commuting to Portland, I will use Amtrak. It seems very workable for me commuting on a regular schedule. Right now almost all our family's trips to Portland are for recreation. Those trips tend to be more open ended, so Amtrak doesn't work as well for that.

Salem Breakfast on Bikes said...

Some good analysis and discussion of the alternatives over at Portland Transit.