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Wilsonville could be key location on proposed rail line

by: SPOKESMAN PHOTO: JOSH KULLA - If Wilsonville ultimately is selected for a new rail station on a proposed high speed line, the existing Oregon Electric Company line, shown here, would be overhauled at considerable cost. Should Wilsonville become the gateway to the metro area when it comes to high-speed rail?

That’s the question facing city officials when it comes to the Oregon Passenger Rail Project, which could eventually see the construction of a new passenger rail line between Eugene and Vancouver as part of a larger federal effort to create a high-speed interstate rail line stretching from Eugene all the way to British Columbia.

In Oregon, the project still is in the early planning stages, but it could feature express service between Eugene and Portland at speeds of up to 125 miles per hour. As a result, Wilsonville finds itself once again at a critical geographical point in the state’s transportation network. The key question for the city, however, is whether it wants to host a new station for the high-speed rail line.

“Our project is looking at the Oregon segment of the high speed rail corridor, which is a federally designated corridor from Eugene to British Columbia,” Jim Cox, ODOT project leader for Oregon Passenger Rail, told Wilsonville City Councilors May 19. “We haven’t done a lot of analysis yet, but we’ll be doing analysis on what type of development and what type of improvements we might need at new stations. It’s not set in stone that it would be in Wilsonville, and we’re sure interested in your input on that; there are other areas to put it.”

On the plus side for the city would be the addition of new jobs during construction and afterward once the station is open for service. Detractors, however, point to the estimated 14 high speed trains that would pass through Wilsonville on a regular service day, as well as the increased wear and tear on city infrastructure resulting from travelers.

Complicating things is the fact the Oregon Passenger Rail is just one of three current rail projects being studied by state agencies. The OPR is focused on longer distance, inter-city passenger-rail travel primarily within the valley, and not shorter distance commuter rail. It, however, is separate from ODOT’s Oregon State Rail Plan, a statewide study. Both of those, in turn, are distinct from the ongoing study of a potential extension of Tri-Met’s Westside Express Service (WES) from Wilsonville to Salem.

Cost estimates for constructing the high-speed line vary from $1 to 2 billion depending on which of the two proposed routes are selected in the end.

Blue or Red?

The so-called Blue option generally follows the existing Amtrak Cascades route. A new line on this route could potentially be built on or near the Union Pacific Railroad right-of-way between Eugene-Springfield, Junction City, Albany, Salem, Keizer, Woodburn, Oregon City, Milwaukie and Portland. It crosses the Willamette River in Portland near Union Station before continuing north to Vancouver.

The so-called Red corridor would pass through Wilsonville as it ran south along Interstate 5 from Portland, either within or adjacent to the current highway right-of-way. It would continue to trace I-5 south to Salem, Albany and Eugene.

Crucially for cost, the red corridor would be all new track devoted primarily to inter-city passenger service. Some sections still could be used by freight rail.

Near Interstate 205, the red corridor would separate from I-5 and continue north through a new tunnel on the west side of the Willamette River.

North of downtown Portland, the red corridor could continue on new track adjacent to the Union Pacific line, tunnel to North Portland, and then connect with the blue corridor to cross into Vancouver.

As far as Wilsonville is concerned, opinion is mixed on whether or not the city should actively look to include itself.

“I don’t think Wilsonville is the right place for an Amtrak station,” said Councilor Richard Goddard. “I don’t think that would be good for this community. I went to Japan, and over there people told me if I got on a train four minutes early I was on the wrong train, but in this country we’ve got a long way to go to get there.”

Goddard said a better investment would be to improve existing corridors rather than build an all-new line that still would need to be shared with the WES and freight rail.

Other councilors asked if a new rail station would be shared with Wilsonville’s existing SMART Central station. But Cox said that would not be decided until after Wilsonville was formally selected to host a station.

“The way this would work,” Cox said, “is we’d almost certainly continue to have stops in Eugene, Albany and Salem and somewhere in the south metro area and then Union Station.”

Depending on the corridor selected, that south metro stop could be in Wilsonville, Tualatin, Oregon City or somewhere else. But it will not be in more than one of those locations.

Mayor Tim Knapp also expressed concern over the amount of passenger rail traffic that would be added onto existing WES and freight traffic — and at much higher speeds.

“I’d have to say I’m skeptical at this point in time whether or not the advantage would fall to Wilsonville,” Knapp said. “I’m not sure I see a huge economic driver in people dropping off their cars at a park-and-ride and going on down the railroad.”

At the same time, he added, there’s not yet enough information available to make a truly informed judgment.

“So it’s a little frustrating,” he said.

ODOT is planning to complete the required federal environmental impact statement over the next year, Cox said. After that, planning is expected to wrap up by the end of 2016.

“The EIS will be out in a year, and that’s the time to comment on it anyway,” Cox said. “These decisions are not being made today, they’ll be made down the road. And certainly, if your community doesn’t want it, then they don’t have to have it.”

Web: http://oregonpassengerail.org.



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