Coming years may bring new passenger rail service through Salem that would link Portland and Vancouver, WA, to our north, down to Eugene and Springfield, to the south.   Oregon Department of Transportation (ODOT) is considering four distinct routes for the 125 miles and is seeking public input on selection at upcoming public open houses.

While the trains would support current trends away from people using private cars to travel, some locals are concerned about the impacts the new service might have on Salem.

ODOT says it has been studying passenger rail down the Willamette Valley, part of the federally designated Pacific Northwest Rail Corridor, for more than 30 years.  Area population is expected to grow by about 35% over the next 25 years while freight volume in the state may grow as much as 60%.

“These increases,” ODOT says on the web site, “will result in travel demand that exceeds the available freight and passenger rail capacity in the Willamette Valley.”

In March, a Brookings Institute report on “key trends in passenger rail” in America found that train ridership has grown over the past 15 years by 55%.  Only six metro areas experienced ridership declines between 1997 and 2012 – and Portland boasts the 16th busiest Amtrak terminal in the country.

Numerous sources agree that US commuters and travelers have begun to use their cars much less and rely on “alternate” transportation such as bicycles, busses and rail more frequently.  One, Seattle’s Sightline Institute noted in 2012 that per-capita travel by vehicle on state owned roads in Washington and Oregon has dropped by 1/5th since 1999, and earlier this year, University of Minnesota transportation economist David Levinson identified 14 trends he believed will shape the future of commuting.

Levinson expects developments such as shorter workweeks and more reliance on social networks for companionship to minimize local travel.  He believes, “People with fewer cars on hand are more likely to use shared transportation modes,” such as transit, intercity rail, airplanes, and so forth.

Impacts like these will change the way Oregonians get around.  “Rail improvements are needed to provide additional passenger and freight rail capacity and to provide more reliable trains, more frequent trains, and shorter travel times between Portland and Eugene,” according to Jyll Smith, Senior Project Leader of the Oregon Passenger Rail project for ODOT.

Salem’s Mayor Anna Peterson is already serving on the project’s Leadership Council as well as the Corridor Forum that “identifies and explores broad-level issues,” Smith says. The project team has met with city of Salem staff.

Many steps remain.  ODOT must come to a decision on a preferred corridor, and then that route will have to be evaluated in detail further.  The results will be published in an Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) expected several years down the road, which will be available for public review.

This EIS will be crucial for attracting federal funds, Smith says.  The federal government has expressed a commitment to passenger trains, but, “In 2009, when the Obama Administration was distributing funds to states to improve passenger rail, Oregon did not receive funding… because it had not conducted an in-depth study and did not have a plan.”  Smith says that the EIS that will result from the Oregon Passenger Rail project “will make Oregon ready to receive funding when it again becomes available.”

Some Salem residents believe the rail project may cause problems for the town.  Although the maps ODOT provide suggest general routes, they do not specify whether the projected new trains would travel existing Union Pacific Railroad (UPRR) tracks served by the Amtrak station at 500 13th Street, which now handles both passenger and freight trains, or if new tracks would be constructed east or west of downtown.  Adding new trains to the UPRR line or to any other route that bisects the city, would mean delays for cars on city roads and impacts to neighborhoods.  Currently, just six Amtrak passenger trains use the UPRR rails each day, three going in each direction.

Then there is the cost.  “The feds may pay for capital investment, but not for operations,” says Salem’s Claudia Howells, who managed ODOT’s Rail Division for a little over 8 years.  “Right now, Amtrak and the state are paying for their use of UPRR’s track,” which means the full cost is shared.”  But, Howells says, “If ODOT ends up with a separate, passenger rail-only line, the full cost will fall on the public, and that is big money.  Within the current process, I’ve yet to see that information being shared with the public.  It will kill passenger rail for a generation if ODOT selects an option that the public won’t pay for and that the state can’t afford.”

Given the reluctance of legislators to increase revenues for many primary services, Howells asks, “Does anyone believe that there is money to fund a very expensive rail system?”
An ODOT open house on the matter was held in Salem in January, and a more recent was part of Willamette University’s October 3 open house.  Salem’s next opportunity to comment involves providing input online at the web site and attending the next ODOT event on November 5.