May 21, 2023

AAWA Response to WSDOT Blog: Seriously Evaluate Benefits to Society of East-West Service

You may have previously seen this May 15, 2023 WSDOT blog regarding East-West passenger rail service and the Federal Railroad Administration’s long-distance route study:.

I am writing to provide additional perspective on WSDOT’s position regarding East-West passenger rail service between Spokane and Seattle via Stampede Pass given that WSDOT’s Blog post is speculative and not based on “further work” recommended by the July 2020 Joint Transportation Commission (JTC) feasibility study.

As with prior WSDOT statements on Seattle-Spokane service, WSDOT continues the rhetoric that “…long journey times, low ridership projections, and high costs of construction do not make this route financially or logistically viable” [WSDOT letter 10/20/2022 to Yakima Valley Conference of Governments and Kittitas County].  WSDOT has reached this conclusion notwithstanding the Washington State legislature’s Joint Transportation Committee (JTC) 2020 feasibility study done by STEER, a contractor, which itself states that “…as this was a high-level study, further work will be required to confirm or refine its findings, include service definition, track and station design, along with possible ridership and financial outcomes”.

WSDOT states: ”We and others have studied the idea [East West service] and so far, have not found a financially feasible solution”.  The statement does not indicate any intent or effort by WSDOT to conduct a benefit-cost analysis or economic impact analysis, both of which are required to determine if the route is, or is not, “financially feasible”.

The cost of the service to Washington State is not known. The STEER study did not determine the cost or benefits of the service and was not intended to do so.  The study provides an estimated cost of needed infrastructure improvements. However, the cost of infrastructure/construction is only one factor in determining whether a project is worthy of long-term investment.  A benefit/cost analysis (BCA) is required to make that determination and a BCA has not yet been conducted.  A BCA determines the net cost and benefits of a project to society by quantifying (monetizing) the value of factors such as reduced vehicle miles traveled (VMT) on highway maintenance, reduced greenhouse gas emissions, improved safety benefits from reduced highway fatalities, injuries, and property damage, the value of serving underserved & low-income populations.  The benefits to society could well justify the cost of construction.

Additionally, an economic impact analysis is needed and has not been conducted.  An economic analysis measures the impact of increased economic activity in a region resulting from effects on retail spending, business activity, tax revenues, jobs & wages, and property values. This analysis provides information in addition to the BCA to assist decision makers in determining whether long-term investment in the project is warranted.

The WSDOT position focuses on why the route is not feasible rather than on conducting additional work recommended by the STEER study to determine if long-term investment by our state is warranted.  For example, WSDOT states “a state-financed route would be financially and logistically challenging due to:

  • The long journey times (8½ hours between Seattle and Spokane).
  • Low ridership projections (about 200,000 annually).
  • High costs of construction estimated in the range of $320 million to $420 million.
  • The high cost of installing federally mandated Positive Train Control safety, which was not included in the 2020 estimates.
  • Ongoing operating subsidy costs to keep the service running.”

Here is what the STEER study says:

Journey times & ridership: ”…despite long journey times [Seattle to Spokane service via Stampede Pass] could generate ridership above or comparable to some other Amtrack State Supported services”.  This is validated by the attached graphs showing Amtrak ridership numbers for existing one and two daily train frequencies for state sponsored routes compared to the proposed East-West Stampede Pass service.  The term “low ridership” is relative to routes such as Amtrak Cascades which operated four round trip daily trains between Seattle and Portland at the time of the STEER study.  It is expected that ridership would be lower with two daily trains compared to four or more daily trains.

Positive Train Control: “Since PTC is also required for freight trains moving ‘poison-or toxic-by-inhalation hazardous materials’ and since BNSF is rolling out PTC on most of its main routes, the study team has assumed that PTC will be in place on the entire route within the next few years in part to ensure safe and reliable operation of existing freight services.”

High cost of construction: It should be noted that the 2020 STEER study was completed prior to enactment of the 2021 Bipartisan Infrastructure Law (BIL) which provides funding opportunities for passenger rail routes specifically intended to provide service to rural, unserved and underserved communities, low-income communities, areas of persistent poverty, and to enhance the regional equity and geographic diversity of intercity passenger rail service.   BIL funding can potentially provide up to 80% of the cost of construction.

Ongoing operating subsidy costs:  Operating cost for twice daily trains between Seattle and Spokane is estimated to be $29 million per year.  This is offset by an estimated $6.6 million in revenue resulting in a net estimated operating cost of $22.4 million annually.  This amount could be reduced through BIL grant funds available to states for newly established intercity passenger rail service during the first five years of operation.

The 2022 Move Ahead Washington Transportation legislation provides $1.5 billion for our Washington State sponsored ferry system over the next 16 years, an average of $94 million per year.  The same legislation also provides over $4.3 billion in transit, bike, and pedestrian investments over the next 16 years, an average of $269 million per year.

Regardless of these high dollar commitments for other forms of public transportation, WSDOT continues to claim that East-West intercity passenger rail service is “financially and logistically challenging” and not “financially or logistically viable”.  All forms of public transportation, including passenger rail, are taxpayer supported services.  Their purpose is not to profit, but to serve the public need.

As the WSDOT blog states, “If a federally funded long-distance service was established – such as the resumption of the North Coast Hiawatha line service connecting eastern and western Washington on the central route might be more feasible”.  What the WSDOT blog does not state is that the $66 billion available for rail through the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law expires 3½ years from now. There is no assurance that future funding will be available, or that the North Coast Hiawatha, if restored, would serve the Yakima Valley.  If restored, the North Coast Hiawatha could pass through Washington at an inconvenient time, i.e. during the night, potentially several hours late, and would likely serve only Spokane, Pasco, Yakima, Ellensburg, and Auburn. Whereas state sponsored Seattle-Spokane service would be daytime trains with possible station stops at Cheney, Ritzville, Connell, Prosser, Pasco, Mabton, Toppenish, Yakima, Ellensburg, and/or Cle Elum.  With Seattle and Spokane as endpoints, it is likely these trains would operate largely on time.

Long-distance service and state sponsored service provide a different type of service. We need both. Our state should not further delay moving forward with the analyses needed for state sponsored service while BIL funds are available to support that effort. 

Yes, restoration of long-distance service can potentially reduce the infrastructure costs to our state for Spokane–Seattle service.  However, the long-distance study now in progress is intended to provide a long-term vision of what nationwide intercity passenger rail service should look like.  Whether or not funds will be available to implement that vision remains to be seen and could require many years for implementation.  Meanwhile, our state should take advantage of currently available federal funding to pursue state sponsored East-West service between Spokane and Seattle via Stampede Pass for the benefit of all Washingtonians.

Rather than continue to speculate about the cost and benefits of the East-West service, let’s encourage our elected officials to conduct the additional work (studies) needed, as recommended by STEER, so that decision makers have the data necessary to determine whether Seattle-Spokane service via Stampede pass is, or is not, cost beneficial.


Gary Wirt
All Aboard Washington