Post-CRC Transit: Time for (Real) Commuter Rail?

Now that the Columbia River Crossing is (probably) dead, is Clark County commuter rail a viable alternative?

Now that the Columbia River Crossing is (probably) dead, is Clark County commuter rail a viable alternative?

If the Columbia River Crossing mega-highway and light rail project is actually dead, a question arises: what are we to do to address mobility across the river, especially when it comes to high(er) capacity public transportation?

Without the CRC, opportunity to improve transit to Clark County, Washington remains limited at best. The likelihood of a light-rail only bridge is slim, and busses will continue to be stuck in I-5 traffic. But there is also the cultural divide, for it seems that north of the river, TriMet in general and light rail in specific is often perceived as something suspect. MAX is a crime train. MAX is the long arm of Portland’s urban culture. MAX is government interventionism and social engineering. And whatnot. (For an excellent and balanced take on this, see this article from last June in the Columbian.)

So is there a form of improved public transit that is achievable with lower cost and less exotic engineering, is far less expensive than the CRC project (and therefore more affordable), and also that is socially acceptable to Clark County? The answer may be yes: commuter rail.

Now hang with me. I don’t mean anything like the growing but heavily flawed TriMet WES line. As commuter rail, WES was built to mimic light rail as much as possible, and as a result sacrificed pretty much everything that typifies commuter rail.

To understand true commuter rail, look north at the Sound Transit’s Seattle-centric Sounder. It exhibits typical commuter rail characteristics not found in WES, but found in dozens of highly successful commuter rail systems across the nation:

  • (Mostly) unidirectional service. Much as TriMet’s express busses do today – mornings towards downtown Seattle, evenings away from it.
  • Lengthy. The southern line extends to Lakewood, south of Tacoma, approximately 45 miles. The north line to Everett is about 35 miles.
  • Very high capacity. These are locomotive hauled trains with multiple cars. Each car is two-level and can carry about 160 seated passengers, and almost double this counting standees. Sounder often runs six to nine car trains. A six-car commuter train thus can handle about 1000 people seated, and 2000 standing. (That’s more than ride all of WES in a day with far lower operating employee costs.)
  • Wide stop spacing. Sounder stations are typically 5-10 miles apart, so that trains can actually reach their 60 miles-per-hour maximum speed and hold it for longer periods.

But using Sounder as a possible model for a Portland to Clark County high(er) capacity transit, it is not only the particulars of the mode that are important. Rather, two other characteristics are vital: achievability, and cultural acceptance. That last one is the most important one, but I want to dispense with some of the numbers first.
On the achievability front, Sounder operates over the freight rail tracks of the BNSF Railway, alongside Amtrak. Sound Transit made significant capital investments in BNSF’s rail infrastructure in order to support the operation, and jointly worked with Amtrak on improvements that would benefit both Sounder and Amtrak Cascades services. Building off of existing infrastructure and partnering with other passenger rail projects resulted in shared gains and a more efficient use of infrastructure.

I should note, Sounder did weigh in at a pretty high construction cost. According to Sound Transit numbers obtained via email from ST spokesperson Kimberly Reason, the original segment from Seattle to Tacoma, inclusive of track and signal upgrades, stations, and equipment, cost $554.8 million. That’s just shy of $14 million per mile in capital and startup costs. Compared to the Portland-Milwaukee Light Rail project’s approximately $205 million per mile, however, Sounder was a bargain.

(Caveat: the numbers Sound Transit provided are about ten years old, and are not expressed in 2013 dollars.)

As with Sounder, the tracks that might host a Clark (and Cowlitz) County commuter rail project are owned by the BNSF Railway. Similarly, the northern line to Longview also hosts Amtrak Cascades. This means that a Clark (and Cowlitz) County commuter rail operation would likely have a host railroad experienced with and friendly towards commuter operations [PDF], and a potential infrastructure partner in Washington DOT / Amtrak Cascades.

Commuter rail, with controlled access, cute stations, and car parking is a mode that appeals far more to suburban voters.

Commuter rail, with controlled access, cute stations, and car parking is a mode that appeals far more to suburban voters.

But enough about numbers and statistics. The bigger question is, is commuter rail the type of high(er) capacity transit that Clark County would be willing to accept? Consider:

  • Unlike light rail, access on commuter rail is controlled. This reduces the perception of criminal elements moving about. Whether that is a legitimate concern is beside the point – in fact I think it’s a bogus one (see also here [PDF]), as is beginning to get out – but politically it is extremely important, especially in Clark County.
  • Commuter rail has a “Better Homes and Gardens” personality that makes it appeal to suburban residents. Locomotives and cars are seen as cute or quaint or friendly. Stations are often small-town depot buildings complete with rose beds and cast-iron street lamps. There is no smack of urban uncertainty to a commuter rail station.
  • Commuter rail does not challenge auto-oriented suburban culture. A significant number of riders drive to a park-and-ride facility and then board the train. This means riders can keep their car, continue to live in low density suburbs, and not feel that transit is challenging their lifestyle and self-image.

For those of us who are dedicated transit riders and advocates, the above points may seem ludicrous, frustrating, or like caving in to what Gordon Price calls “Motordom”. But ask yourself this: is it better to have thousands upon thousands of cars parked at park-and-rides in Clark County, or parked in the city center? Which would be better for the air quality, for commerce, for general quality of life on our side of the river?

Commuter rail – the real thing, not WES – may be the one higher capacity transit mode that would satisfy Clark County voters while also being achievable, buildable, and functional. As we contemplate what to do now that the Columbia River Crossing – all twelve lanes and two light-rail tracks of it – is (probably) consigned to the scrap heap, commuter rail to Clark County may be an idea whose time has come.

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