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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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