Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Multimillion-dollar rail projects to begin in Vancouver, Wash.

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A slew of west Vancouver, Wash., railroad construction projects appear to be on the fast-track to begin construction this spring, The Columbian reports.

Washington transportation Secretary Paula Hammond asked federal authorities to prioritize a $29.1-million project to add a 3.2-mile-long set of bypass tracks on the east side of the existing BNSF main line, from near the railroad overpass at Fruit Valley Road all the way south to Eighth Street. At that point, a city of Vancouver project will refashion the existing railroad berm downtown.

Vancouver is moving ahead with the separate $25.6-million project to reconstruct the railroad berm and open up the Columbia River waterfront to high-density urban development. The 22-month project will begin in May or June, a city official said.

"When we complete our project, it will allow the city of Vancouver to close Jefferson and Eighth Street permanently," said Hassan Abdalla, project manager for the city.

Motorists would cross the tracks through new underpasses at Grant and Esther streets.

The Vancouver City Council authorized Mayor Tim Leavitt to sign a construction and maintenance agreement with BNSF.

The Washington Department of Transportation, meanwhile, expects to learn within the next two to three weeks whether it will receive the money necessary to add a new single set of tracks on the east side of the BNSF yard through west Vancouver. The idea is to relieve congestion on the BNSF main line, to improve the on-time reliability of state-owned passenger trains.

"All the freight trains that gum up the works, it will get them completely out of the way," said Andrew Wood, deputy director of the Washington Department of Transportation's rail division. "This is why it's an important project. It improves reliability.

The Obama administration announced two months ago that Washington would receive $590 million to boost the high-speed rail corridor between Portland and Seattle. Nationwide, the administration provided $8 billion in federal stimulus funding to improve high-speed rail.

However, federal authorities didn't specify which projects would be funded in each state.

A spokesman for the Federal Railroad Administration said that it's up to the states to prioritize their projects, although it remains unclear on what basis the feds awarded the money in the first place.

Hammond, in a letter to FRA deputy administrator Karen Rae on March 10, specifically listed Vancouver's bypass tracks and another four projects cumulatively worth $311.4 million that could be ready for construction this year. She added another $286.6 million worth of projects, including the purchase of a new Cascades train, that could be completed by 2016.

"We appreciate your commitment to ensure that the cooperative funding agreements are issued immediately so that we can get these projects started and create jobs," Hammond wrote.

The projects would boost on-time reliability from 56 percent to 88 percent while adding two additional round-trips to the four currently running between Seattle and Portland, according to state transportation officials. Wood said the track improvements would shave 10 or 11 minutes off the schedule between the two major Northwest cities.

Currently, Amtrak schedules 3 hours and 15 minutes to get from Vancouver to Seattle and a shade under 3 hours to get from Seattle to Vancouver.

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