Last Thursday, the Oregon Department of Transportation announced that the Oregon Passenger Rail Leadership Council had selected two alternatives for future intercity passenger rail service south of Portland. The alignment selection is part of a planning process to determine the alignment for mid and long-term investments in passenger rail operations in the Willamette Valley. Presently, this corridor is served by
four three daily round trips of rail service ( three two Amtrak Cascades departures and the daily Amtrak Coast Starlight) and an additional six Amtrak-affiliated “thruway” motor-coaches. While the two remaining alternatives differ from each other significantly, both have similar and substantial impacts for the greater Portland region. Before we examine these, let’s look at the two alternatives more closely.
Alternative 1. This alternative keeps rail service south of the city on its existing route, using the right-of-way of the Union Pacific Railroad. Presumably the selection of this alternative would mean introducing a series of extensive, phased improvements to the UP tracks such as additional passing tracks, double and triple tracking in places, and improved signal systems.
Alternative 2. This alternative is a combination of several different segments. For the purpose of this post we can generally describe this as following Interstate 5 from the Eugene area to Keizer, north of Salem. From Keizer to Wilsonville the alignment follows the shortline freight tracks of the Portland & Western. From Wilsonville to Oregon city, it follows I-205 and from there it uses the existing UPRR tracks into Portland. (A third variation of Alternative 2, utilizing a tunnel under part of Portland, remains in play, but seems less and less likely.)
Winners & Losers. The details of both alternatives and their pros and cons would take up plenty of discussion on their own. The two alternatives, however, are very similar in how they directly impact the Portland region. Both utilize the existing Union Pacific tracks from Oregon City through to a station stop at Portland Union Station. The result is a mixed bag for the city, and creates some big winners and some big losers.
Winner: historic preservation. Both alignments will continue to serve Portland Union Station. Built from 1893 to 1896, the facility is the oldest continually operating union station west of St. Louis, Missouri. The experience of other cities across the nation indicates that the best way to preserve historic and large city-center rail stations is continued operation.
Loser: Eastside/”modern” station advocates. It’s been a long-time dream from some to move Portland’s rail station facilities to the east side of the Willamette River. The most dramatic of these was the conversion of Memorial Coliseum into a rail station, an idea championed frequently in the pages of The Oregonian by activist Ray Polani.
Winner: passengers passing through Portland. Given the continued use of Portland Union Station and the limited storage space of the station’s yard, it seems likely that trains south of Portland will continue to be interlined with service north of the city. This means fewer required transfers for passengers passing through the city.
Loser: condo developers in the Central Eastside Industrial District. Developers hoping to construct residential units in the CEID, such as Key Development’s recently announced Burnside Bridgehead tower, will face the continued presence of rail traffic on the right-of-way of First Avenue. Trains in this corridor frequently block pedestrian and auto traffic and are a source of both particulate pollution and noise. Expect increasing developer pressure to establish a “quiet zone” in the CEID, eliminating train horn noise.
Loser: high-speed rail purists. The continued use of the Union Pacific right-of-way through the city implies that the future of passenger rail south of Portland will remain a blended, mid-speed system with speeds no higher than 125 miles-per-hour (and probably nowhere near that fast within the city). It is still marginally possible that if Alternative 2 is selected train speeds might edge closer to the 200 miles-per-hour mark, but given the difficulty of phasing this option it seems less and less likely that Alternative 2 will end up being the selected route.
Winner: rail-side neighborhoods and pedestrians. Lower top speeds will mean less need for massive sound barriers, security fences, and grade crossing eliminations, thus resulting in fewer circulation impacts.
An Op-Ed Moment. While the details of the two alternatives are beyond the scope of this post, it is the opinion of this writer that Alternative 1 remains the best option for the future of intercity passenger rail service south of Portland. Alternative 2 will be almost impossible to construct in operable, phased segments, making it unlikely to be able to survive the political apathy towards passenger rail that has been typical of the state’s Legislature. Furthermore, Alternative 2 runs counter to good land use principles, being dependent on freeway-side stations not located near the city centers along its route. None of Alternative 2’s stations south of Portland are located in city centers, and in the case of Eugene, not only would this alternative’s station be further from the University of Oregon, it would be not in Eugene at all, but in Springfield.
Alternative 1, by contrast, lends itself naturally to the successful phased approach that was utilized to construct Washington’s wildly successful segment of Amtrak Cascades. Alternative 1 is also the only alternative that supports good land use, maintaining rail service to the centers of Salem, Albany, and Eugene were quality transportation nodes can be supported by denser land uses.
For the present, both alternatives will advance towards inclusion in the Draft Environmental Impact Statement that will be published sometime in late 2014, with public hearings anticipated in early 2015. To learn more about the project, see oregonpassengerrail.org.