Many Willamette Valley commuters and businesses frustrated at I-5 rush hour and gas prices have longed for a convenient, reliable and speedy train between Portland and Eugene. The solutions aren’t quite around the bend yet, but some important behind-the-scenes activity in recent months might create a path towards greater transit choices for Oregon’s consumers and businesses - especially the tough issue of how we pay for it all.  

To recap the problem - current Amtrack Cascades service is infrequent, inconvenient, and unreliable, for two primary reasons:

1. There aren’t enough trains.
2. Amtrak shares the rail line with Union Pacific freight trains. Freight trains move more slowly than passenger trains, ergo bottlenecks. There’s a bit more to it than that, but that’s the gist.

The key solutions are:

1. Put more passenger trains in service.

2. Give them a track of their own to run on.

One way is to do what California is doing – build a dedicated passenger rail corridor from one end to the other. This is quite expensive, and probably overkill for Oregon’s smaller population. A more likely option for Oregon is to re-align the Cascades train on a hybrid of unused tracks from the olden days, some existing freight track (where bottlenecks are less an issue), and some brand new track nearby the existing freight tracks. There are so many different ways to do this that it requires a fair amount of study – and discussion with affected communities. State officials, with guidance from community leaders such as Eugene Mayor Kitty Piercy, will hopefully figure this out over the next year.

State officials estimate that by adding more trains and putting them on dedicated tracks, Oregon could increase service to 7 trains daily between Eugene and Portland at 95% reliability at just under 2 hours. This, in turn, could supercharge ridership, alleviate congestion on I-5, and give tens of thousands of Oregonians a more productive commute. And, according to state estimates, taxpayers could ultimate save billions in avoided accidents, maintenance and construction on the I-5.

Money matters

But how do we pay for it all? Preliminary state estimates peg the upfront capital costs for improved passenger rail at about $2 billion, and ongoing operating costs at $20 million per year. Harder numbers will flow out of the planning process noted in the paragraph above. Currently, Oregon spends five million dollars per year to operate the current Amtrak system. Half of that money comes from fares, the other half from vanity license plates (yup, that’s right).

The state’s Rail Funding Task Force is in charge of making a recommendation to the state, by December on how to finance those upfront and ongoing costs for both passenger and freight rail. I sit on the Task Force, along with some pretty smart and experienced business and government leaders. We have met three times; our fourth and final meeting is in December. Our objective is to recommend a funding package that will sustainably meet Oregon’s rail funding needs, and that Oregonians will get behind.

The latter is important to me not only for practical reasons, but also because an investment as important as this should inherently have the support of the public in order to have integrity as a public works project (in other words, China can keep their state-imposed bullet trains; I’ll take our democratic process over that any day).

Funding options

We are currently considering five different funding options. None of them are perfect, and none of them alone would meet the funding needs of rail. But if you put a few of them together, it just might work. (Note: we ruled out gas or sales taxes, as the voters have been quite clear about these options)

Two of those options are:

1. Special district. This is how Tri-Met and other local transit agencies work. At the risk of oversimplifying, it might look like this: Picture a map of the Willamette Valley. Draw an oval around the communities between Portland and Eugene that would most utilize the train. Have those communities band together and decide to tax themselves to finance the train, and then put some people in charge of running the program. The tax is flexible, it might be a bit more on everyone’s property tax, a bit more deducted from people’s paycheck. You’d have about $45 million annually if everyone in the mid-Valley counties agreed to a 1.4% increase in property taxes – which would be $40 more per property owner in Multnomah County, where I live.

2. Telephone fee. Another interesting option is to add another $.50 or so to people’s monthly cell and landline bills, which could raise $30 million/year. In my household, that would be another $18/year. The upside is that it is a simple way to spread the costs out so they are almost unnoticeable to everyone, but with huge benefits for everyone.

If you did either of the examples above, then for between $20 and $40 a year, less than the cost of filling up your gas tank once, we’d have enough money to operate a frequent and reliable train that makes trips to Salem or Eugene cheaper, more productive and less stressful. That doesn't get you the $2 billion upfront costs, but it should give us a sense of how we might make it happen.

Read all the options, and how they could play together.

Of course all of these options come with challenges. The special district idea requires enough people in the communities between Portland and Eugene to agree to pay slightly higher taxes for rail. And there are some specific issues with property taxes that could result in some other property tax-funded programs being cut. And there may not be enough of an intuitive connection between phone bills and trains for the public to go for it (although note that you can gab all you want on a train).

Which means there is only one way to keep these ideas from collecting dust on a shelf. Those of us who believe it is worth another $20, $50, or even $100 a year for improved rail have to go out and persuade our neighbors that the additional cost is worth it – because it will give us alternatives to spiraling gas prices and maddening traffic, create jobs, and reduce our dependence on foreign oil (even the current lousy Amtrak service is cheaper than driving).

So fellow fast train proponents, get ready. If things go well, there might be a real, statewide public debate in the next year or so over the future of Oregon’s inter-city rail system. And your voices will be needed to persuade your family, friends and elected officials to make it happen.