Link Transit is currently taking public input and comments for a number of proposed service improvements that are scheduled to go into effect on July 1st. Most of the changes are minor, with the extension of some trips to run the full route and adding new trips to extend the span of service on other routes.
The last trip leaving Columbia Station at 6:30PM on weekdays currently ends at the Wal-Mart stop at 6:50PM. This trip would be extended to run the full route, with the bus returning to Columbia Station at 7:25PM. (The bus would still have a 10 minute layover at the Wal-Mart stop.)
Currently, Route 9 doesn’t begin running until 9AM. Two new trips would be added in the mornings, with new departures leaving Columbia Station at 8:00AM and 8:30AM. (15 minute service would still start at 10AM). Two more new trips would also be added in the evenings, with new departures leaving Columbia Station at 6:00PM and 6:30PM.
The last trip on Route 8W leaving Columbia Station at 6:00PM on weekdays currently ends at Olds Station (next to the Link Transit Admin/Base facility). This trip would be extended to run the full route, with the bus serving East Wenatchee and returning to Columbia Station at 6:55PM. There would also be a new weekday trip on Route 8E, which would leave Columbia Station at 7:00PM and run the full route before returning to Columbia Station at 7:55PM.
The current weekday-only trip leaving Columbia Station at 5:15PM would be added to the Saturday schedule, with the bus arriving in Manson at 6:33PM and leaving at 6:40PM with the bus returning to Columbia Station at 7:55PM.
A new weekday-only trip would be added, with the bus leaving Columbia Station at 8:00PM and arriving in Leavenworth at approximately 8:48PM. It is not specified if this trip would continue back all the way to Columbia Station, but if it did it would leave Leavenworth at approximately 9:00PM and return to Columbia Station at approximately 9:50PM. The current weekday-only trip leaving Columbia Station at 6:10PM would be added to the Saturday schedule, with the bus arriving in Leavenworth at 6:58PM and leaving at 7:10 with the bus returning to Columbia Station at 8:00PM.
These new trips won’t make a huge dent in Link Transit’s operating budget, as they are projected to add just $94,500 to the current operating budget of $10,725,000. To let them know what you think of these proposed improvements, you can call them at (509) 664-7611, or even send them a tweet to @LinkTransit.
Ben Franklin Transit
BYD E-Bus Will Be Tested in the Tri-Cities
Currently undergoing testing in Spokane with Spokane Transit Authority, it has been confirmed that the BYD E-Bus is coming to the Tri-Cities next month. At this time, officials with BFT are still working on plans for where and when this bus will be running, but a press release should be put out towards the end of the month with that information. It has also been hinted that the ZEPS Bus, BFT’s current electric bus project, will be running at the same times as the BYD E-Bus, creating the opportunity to compare these two different technologies side by side.
New Bus Stop Signs Coming This Summer
Pending the approval of the Board of Directors tomorrow, bus riders in Chelan and Douglas Counties will be seeing some new bus stop signs installed. Over the years, the old bus stop signs have become faded with age, and a large number of them have the route numbers listed in a haphazard fashion with little organization and inconsistent fonts. The new bus stop signs, an example of them seen at right, work immensely to address this issue, as well as gain added visibility and an overall better look. Approximately 620 of them will be installed, covering every city and bus route in the Link Transit system. The costs for these new signs is $26,511.71 (including WA sales tax), which covers the signs and all the installation hardware.
Vote to cut the Yakima-Ellensburg Commuter and Sunday Service Tabled
As reported last week, Yakima Transit was looking in to the possibility of discontinuing the Yakima-Ellensburg Commuter and Sunday fixed-route service. Both services are largely funded with grants from WSDOT, and those funds are running out very soon, largely in part to higher than predicted maintenance costs in the case of the former. At the request of City Manager Tony O’Rourke, the vote was tabled as talks for new funding sources had picked up in the days since this was first announced. A meeting with officials from the involved parties and cities is tentatively scheduled for the end of the month, and this issue will likely come up again in the City Council meeting next month. In coverage from the Yakima Herald-Republic, it was mentioned that Yakima Transit and Hopesource had submitted a grant request to help purchase two new buses to run the route, so there may be hope yet.
Wenatchee Valley Shuttle Adds Stop at Columbia Station
Back in December, Wenatchee Valley Shuttle moved their Wenatchee stop from Olds Station (Easy Street) to Columbia Station in Downtown. With Link Transit, Amtrak, Northwestern Trailways, and the Apple Line all serving the station as well, it’ll make it much easier to connect to the shuttle.
(This is the first post in the Transit Throwback series, which will feature a piece of transit history from Eastern Washington [examples include vehicles, schedules, news articles, and so on]. New posts will be scheduled on the 2nd and 4th Thursday of each month.)
Before Ben Franklin Transit was ever established in 1981, the GM New Look was already the most popular transit vehicle of its time. Coming after the GM “Old Look” of the 1940’s and 1950’s, which reined during the peak of the National City Lines era, it was a bus that was popular with both operators and passengers. During the production years of the GM New Look, which ran from 1959 to 1987, there were more than 44,000 of these buses built.
In 1961, just a short couple years after production of the New Look had started, a Virginia-based transit company in the Washington DC area called the Alexandria, Barcroft & Washington Transit Company received an order of 7 GM TDH-4517 buses (the specific model number, of which there were many during production of the New Look). Numbered 134-140 in their fleet, the buses were part of a 40 bus order that AB&W had placed for this model, with the first 20 being delivered in January 1960. Before WMATA acquired AB&W and took over fixed route bus service in 1973, AB&W’s buses served the suburban DC area of Virginia along and south of Columbia Pike (VA State Highway 244).
Somewhere down the line, some or all of 134-140 ended up at a used bus dealer in Minneapolis MN. After Ben Franklin Transit was officially established by voter approval on May 11, 1981, they had to find some buses to run service with. Via old articles from the Tri-City Herald, the plan seemed to be that BFT would buy some used buses from King County Metro (Seattle). A large critic of this plan was Doug Stiles, the owner and operator of Bassett Transit, a private Hanford commuter bus service. He argued that he could buy and refurbish used buses for essentially pennies on the dollar in comparison to the prices that BFT would be paying. Of course, Stiles was in a position where he had to be critical at all costs towards BFT, because even though the PBTA board passed a resolution that they wouldn’t compete with the Hanford commuter bus systems, he still had a lot of potential business to lose. (BFT later contracted with Bassett Transit in the late 1980’s to run Route 225 until BFT took over full operation of it a few years later, after which Bassett Transit went out of business.) With the King County Metro deal left dead in the water after that debate, BFT ended up buying a total of 37 used GM New Looks from that dealer in Minneapolis, some of them 35 feet in length and others 40 feet in length. They came in varying models and equipped with different features, as some had A/C, and some had power steering.
After operating the GM New Looks from the first day of service on May 10, 1982 through most of the 1980’s, BFT took delivery of 32 brand new Gillig Phantoms in 1988. (It would’ve been 33 but one was damaged in delivery, so a replacement was delivered the next year.) With the brand new buses in service, most of the New Looks were finally retired from service. It’s hard to track the fate of most of these buses, but it is assumed that a large number ended up as scrap metal. However, at least one bus was spared from “death.” A local businessman bought #121 (formerly AB&W #134) with the intention of using it as an instructional vehicle for a CDL driving school that he planned to establish. It would seem that luck was not on his side, as reportedly that plan never panned out. It’s not clear who brought it there or why it was brought there, but sometime after that plan failed it was parked in a vacant field near the Richland Airport, and today that is where it remains.
Having done nothing more than gather dust and stand as an occasional target to vandalism, the appearance of BFT #121 has changed little in the last 20 years. The old BFT livery is still preserved on this bus, though the BFT name itself was painted over after the bus was sold to the businessman with the CDL driving school plan. Apart from the farebox and transmission lever, all the key pieces of the bus are still there. Even the old destination sign roll is mostly intact, which when I last visited the bus I changed to “Not In Service” as a testament to the current fate of the bus. Last being registered in 1990 (as evidenced by the registration tag on the rear license plate), it is unknown if anyone even has a claim to this bus anymore. As it sits on land owned by the Port of Benton, it would seem likely that they have the best claim to the bus. Considering that it has sat in that field for some 20 years now, it is questionable if the Port of Benton even cares about doing anything with it.
As a small sidenote, it’s worth sharing that the bus was recently featured on the cover of the BFT schedule book, which used a copy of an oil painting done by BFT bus operator Daniel Schmidt. The painting can also be seen on an ad panel that BFT has inside the CREHST-owned GM TDM-5108 (former Hanford commuter bus).
To see more photos of BFT #121, view the rest of my photos of the bus on Flickr.
Last week, I mentioned that as part of the blog’s relaunch to Transit 509, I was going to discontinue my coverage of transit in Tampa Bay. I also mentioned that I would be continuing that coverage on another transit blog as a guest contributor.
Officially announced last Friday in this post, I have joined Tampa transit blogger Hartride 2012 as a guest author on Public Transit As Told By Hartride 2012. Yesterday my first post, covering the SouthShore Transit Circulator Study, was published. As I mentioned in my introduction piece, I will be covering some new topics on transit in Tampa Bay along with supplemental coverage on current transit news in the area. All my past posts on Tampa Bay transit will remain online here at Transit 509, but they will continue to be cited as needed in my future posts.
Again, I want to thank all of you who continue to follow Transit 509, but I also encourage everyone to follow Public Transit As Told By Hartride 2012 if you haven’t already!
Roughly two and a half years after the service first started, Yakima Transit has announced that they plan to discontinue the Yakima-Ellensburg Commuter, with the last day of service on July 1st, 2014.
This continues a recent trend of cutbacks of service at Yakima Transit, with the recent discontinuation of Route 8 and modification of Route 1, which was initially postponed by city council vote but later approved.
When the Yakima-Ellensburg Commuter first began, it was largely supported by a grant from WSDOT that Yakima Transit and Hopesource had been trying to get for several years prior. At the time, the only intercity bus links that were available were Greyhound and Central Washington Airporter, both of which have base fares that are too high for a lot of potential passengers. With the launch of the Yakima-Ellensburg Commuter, access between the two cities was greatly improved, particularly for people using the bus to attend classes at Central Washington University in Ellensburg and Yakima Valley Community College and Perry Technical Institute in Yakima.
Initially, the fare to ride was $3, though that was later raised to $4 each way. Shortly after the service launched, there was also a monthly pass introduced for the route (which was also valid on all other Yakima Transit and Central Transit routes), which launched at $100/month but was also later raised to $125/month. The fare increases didn’t seem to chase away too many passengers though, as the ridership has continued to grow each year since it first began. In 2012, the Yakima-Ellensburg Commuter carried 39,415 passengers, with that number increasing to ~54,000 in 2013. With the high ridership seen on the route, Yakima Transit officials proudly touted that the Yakima-Ellensburg Commuter had the 2nd highest farebox recovery in the state at 35% (Pullman Transit is 1st). [I checked this stat, and the farebox recovery for 2013 is actually ~30%, which is still impressive.]
While the Yakima-Ellensburg Commuter has clearly been popular with passengers, it hasn’t come without problems for Yakima Transit and Hopesource. Over the course of running the route, there have been almost 20 different vehicles used. Initially, cutaways were used when the service was launched, but as ridership quickly grew larger vehicles were needed. Yakima Transit then bought some used MCI coaches from Grant Transit Authority, along with four others from Ben Franklin Transit later on. Reportedly, the MCI’s didn’t last long, and so Yakima Transit most recently bought some used Gillig Phantoms from Sound Transit. Though buying used buses may have a low upfront cost, they will always have a higher cost of maintenance, as it seems that Hopesource learned the hard way unfortunately. (Note that while the vehicles are owned by Yakima Transit, the staffing and maintenance is done by Hopesource as so to not violate RCW 35.84.060.)
The main reason being cited for the discontinuation of the Yakima-Ellensburg Commuter is the unavailability of state funds. As I mentioned earlier, the service was launched using a WSDOT 2-year grant, and it was continued last year with another 2-year grant. (Note that Yakima Transit will likely have to return part of the grant if the route is cut). Officials stated that “the State has made it clear to the City that no further state funding would be made available for this service including the purchase of more reliable buses.” Without getting off on a tangent about WA’s paltry financial support for public transit, it just comes down to money. Without any sort of financial security for the service, it’s hard to make the case for continuing a service that Yakima Transit themselves recognize as “highly successful,” even though the overall savings in the budget will only amount to $65,000.
So, can anything be done to save the Yakima Ellensburg Commuter? It’s hard to say. Currently, the funding for the route comes from multiple sources, listed below (numbers are for the 2-year period):
- WSDOT (mix of State and Federal funds): $422,247
- Fares: $377,000
- City of Yakima (Yakima Transit): $132,000
- Central Washington University: $120,000
- City of Selah (Selah Transit): $10,000
- HopeSource (the Contractor, non-profit organization): $2,000
Riders would likely support a small fare increase in the face of a complete loss of service, and if pressed hard enough CWU could possibly increase their contribution, which is collected from a mandatory student fee. As I mentioned in the News Roundup last week, Yakima Transit Route 10 (which is operated under contract for the City of Selah) was going to be extended to the Firing Center P&R to give Selah residents a connection to the Yakima-Ellensburg Commuter. While it would likely be small, Selah’s contribution could also be potentially increased. However, almost all of these groups are operating on tight budgets as is, so the future of the route may be a foregone conclusion.
Now, as if the potential loss of the Yakima-Ellensburg Commuter wasn’t enough, Yakima Transit is also looking at ending all fixed-route service on Sundays, which will go into effect April 13, 2014.
Like the Yakima-Ellensburg Commuter, funding for Sunday service has been largely reliant on grant funding from WSDOT, the most recent one being a CMAQ (Congestion Mitigation Air Quality) grant. The current grant funding runs out on the proposed day of Sunday service discontinuation, and Yakima Transit officials state that they will not be eligible for another grant for the service until July 1st, 2015, in accordance with the WSDOT funding cycle. Currently, Sunday service, which sees service on 6 routes on hourly schedules, is costing Yakima Transit $198,000 each year (with $33,000 coming from Selah to operate Route 10). Sunday service is roughly on par with weekday productivity on fixed-route service in Yakima (averaging 18 passengers/hour, versus 23 passengers/hour on weekdays). Again, without any financial security to maintain the service, Yakima Transit is left with a lose-lose situation in this decision.
If you’re interested in voicing your concerns about these potential service cuts, the Yakima City Council will be voting on them this Tuesday, March 11, 2014. The meeting starts at 6PM inside the council chambers at City Hall. If you’re unable to make it, check back here on transit509.com the next day for the latest news on this.
As Ben Franklin Transit and Link Transit both continue to work through issues with their respective E-Bus projects, Spokane Transit Authority is also jumping on board with the potential future of transit by conducting a 30-day trial with an E-Bus built by BYD Motors.
Scheduled to begin today, the E-Bus will be running trial service on several different routes serving the Northside area of Spokane. Below is the schedule of where and when the bus will be scheduled to run (subject to change):
Routes 24/28 5:28AM – 2:07PM
Route 25 10:42AM-7:00PM
Routes 22/27 5:39AM-2:20PM
Routes 24/26/28 1:37PM-10:13PM
BYD Motors has had a bit of a rough go at it as they try to work their way into the North American transit market. Currently, the FTA is deciding whether or not to block the use of federal funds in a contract between BYD Motors and Long Beach Transit (CA). They’ve also had problems as they try to get a bus to pass inspection at the Altoona Bus Research and Testing Center. That said, apart from current head of the E-Bus market, Proterra, BYD Motors seems to have the best product on the market (and that’s coming from someone who’s a huge supporter of Complete Coach Works, another competitor). It’s not immediately clear if this is a WSDOT sponsored test, or if STA is going at this on their own. That said, I commend STA for being smart about this. Rather than making a huge commitment beforehand, they’re giving the technology a small test in the real world first. This continues their trend of smart, thought out decisions on transit technology (such as their decision to pass on CNG fuel based in part on the detrimental effect on the environment).
As noted above, the testing will continue through the end of the month. I’m sure that local media in Spokane will do a good job of getting more coverage on this E-bus trial, but you can also expect to see more coverage here on Transit 509 when I visit Spokane later this month and check out the E-Bus myself. (For more immediate updates, you can follow @transit509 on Twitter.)
(This is the first post in the new News Roundup series, which will feature several blurbs about news/updates from transit agencies in Eastern Washington. New posts will be scheduled on the 1st and 3rd Monday of each month, though there will not be a post on the 3rd Monday if there is no news/updates to report on.)
Ben Franklin Transit
Customer Service Now Open on Saturdays
Responding to rider demand, Customer Service will now be open on Saturdays once again (last being so before BFT started cutting services due to the recession). The Rider Information line will be open for phone calls from 8AM-5PM, which is also the same hours that the customer service building at Three Rivers Transit Center will be open. Along with the opportunity to get information in person, riders will also have access to the restrooms and waiting area during those hours.
No Marijuana Ads on Buses
After being contacted by their advertising contractor about whether marijuana/marijuana-related advertisements were going to be permitted on transit vehicles, Link Transit has approved an amended advertising policy that prohibits them, citing the fact that the annual FTA certification process of a drug and alcohol free work place is consistent with this amended policy. With this change, the existing policy remains mostly unchanged except for Line H, where the advertising policy prohibits advertising that “promotes the sale of tobacco or tobacco-related products, and marijuana or marijuana-related products.”
Surplus Trolleys Going to Pierce Transit
While the Ebus program continues to experience issues with the batteries, Link Transit has continued to hold on to their old diesel trolleys as backup vehicles. However, with the recent delivery of 5 new CNG-fueled Arboc Spirit of Mobility cutaways, they’re finally able to surplus the old diesel trolleys. Among the 5 being surplused, 3 of them (501, 503, and 506) will be sold to Pierce Transit, who will be using them on their seasonal “Get Around Gig Harbor” trolley service, which began as a demonstration service last summer. Each trolley will be sold to Pierce Transit for $13,724 each ($41,172 total). The other 2 surplus trolleys (504 and 507) will be sold to a brokerage service that deals in used trolley buses. All the funds from this bus sale will be used by Link Transit for future bus purchases, as the vehicles were originally purchased by their first owner, Milwaukee County Transit System, using FTA funds.
Used STA Buses Coming to Wenatchee
Needing to replace the 3 1991 Orion I’s being used on the SkiLink service and a 2004 Optima Opus which is obsolete (meaning parts are not available), Link Transit will be buying 5 used 29-ft Gillig Low Floors from Spokane Transit Authority for $11,000 each. Historically, Link Transit has purchased buses with one door only. However, as ridership has risen on the urban routes, the need for buses with multiple doors has become an issue. With the purchase of the 5 buses from STA, the Orion I’s and Optima Opus will be retired, and the older 29-ft Gillig Low Floors with one door currently in Link Transit’s fleet will be moved from regular fixed-route service to the SkiLink service.
Route 10 Extended To Connect with Yakima-Ellensburg Commuter
After the plan to route the Yakima-Ellensburg Commuter through Selah fell through due to large opposition from current riders, Yakima Transit officials have found a compromise. Beginning March 24, Route 10 will be extended north to the park-and-ride at Exit 26, next to the Yakima Firing Center. With the funds already being spent to improve a parking lot at Selah Christian Church for use as a park-and-ride on the original proposal, riders will instead be able to catch Route 10 there or anywhere else along the current route, and ride up to the firing center park-and-ride where they can transfer to the Yakima-Ellensburg Commuter. Regular fixed-route fares will remain the same, and the fare policy for the Yakima-Ellensburg Commuter will still apply to all riders regardless if they transfer from Route 10 or not.
After spending the last several months debating whether I wanted to continue running this blog, I’ve decided to instead relaunch “TransitZac” and reintroduce it as “Transit 509.”
Some of my more sharp eyed viewers may have noticed that I started tweaking things on the blog over the course of this weekend. Up top is a brand new header with the new Transit 509 name, which still features the ever-popular animated destination sign. On the sidebar, you’ll notice some new links and new features. The biggest change however is that the site is no longer using a WordPress subdomain address. Instead, Transit 509 will now always be found at transit509.com. (Note that all old transitzac.wordpress.com links will automatically redirect to the new domain.)
As you might have guessed, Transit 509 will start covering a few new transit agencies. In the past, posts have covered news/updates from Ben Franklin Transit, Spokane Transit Authority, and Yakima Transit only, with a couple cameo’s from Valley Transit as well. Now, there will also be posts covering news/updates from all the other transit agencies in Eastern Washington. The full list can be seen on the right under “Transit Agencies.” However, this also means that I will be discontinuing my coverage of transit from the Tampa Bay area. Recognizing that the Tampa Bay area was one of my most popular topics, I’ll be continuing to blog about it in the future as an occasional guest contributor on another blog. (More on that in the near future.)
With a new name, I’ll also be introducing a couple new blog series. Later today, I’ll be posting the first installment of the News Roundup series. Instead of having an entire blog post for each little story that comes out from a transit agency, the news roundup will feature multiple blurbs covering news/updates from multiple agencies. New posts in the News Roundup series will always be on Mondays, generally on a biweekly basis with new posts on the 1st and 3rd Monday of every month (though there will not be a post on the 3rd Monday if there’s no news/updates to report on). Next Thursday, I’ll introduce the new Transit Throwback series, which will coincide with the popular “#throwbackthursday” and “#transitthursday” hashtags on Twitter. Some posts will feature an old newspaper article, an old system map, an old transit vehicle, or something similar. Again, this will be a biweekly series, with new posts being uploaded on the 2nd and 4th Thursday of every month. In between all that, I’ll still be continuing with my usual posts in the Epic Transit Journey and Transit Tourism series, as well as general posts about reroutes, proposals, and so on.
To help fulfill the new tag line for the blog, “The Eastern Washington Transit Resource,” I’ll also be working on adding bus schedules/phone numbers/etc for people who search for that information online and get led here. You’ll notice some new page links above the site header (where the About/Contact page sits alone right now), but it won’t change much about the blog overall.
With all that, I want to thank all my readers for your continued support, and I hope that you enjoy the newly relaunched Transit 509!
PS: Normally at the end of most of my blog posts, I welcome my readers to send me a tweet to @ziggzagzac with thoughts/comments. However, I’ve also updated my name there, and will now be tweeting under the handle @transit509.
Just a heads up to all visitors: The blog will be undergoing some work over the course of this weekend. I’ll try my best to keep everything up and running, but some links may be temporarily broken and/or missing at times. As always, feel free to send me a tweet to @ziggzagzac.
Be sure to check back on Monday for a big announcement.
As I’ve previously covered before here, discussions about creating new passenger rail routes or boosting the availability of current services come up every now and then in Washington State. More often than not, this discussions fade off into obscurity and are forgotten until someone else suggests a similar idea.
A newer transit advocacy group from the Puget Sound area, aptly named “Friends of Transit,” hopes to foster more of these discussions in the hope of achieving the goal of winning a plan for statewide passenger rail. To help those discussions, they’ve published a concept map of what a statewide passenger rail system could look like. (To see the full version, view the .pdf.)
Before I start breaking down all the details and logistics (and some errors) of this map, I will say that it is a good map and it will do just fine to help get the conversation going to boost passenger rail service in Washington State. In keeping with the focus of this blog, I’m not going to spend much time on the details of the map surrounding the greater Puget Sound area and the rest of the I-5 corridor, as that’s more the domain of the Seattle Transit Blog.
To cross the Cascades, the map features the two corridors already being used by current passenger rail services: Cascade Pass (BNSF Scenic Subdivision) and the Columbia River Gorge (BNSF Fallbridge Subdivision). Between Everett and Wenatchee, the map proposes the addition of two new stations at Snohomish and Monroe, which would also be serviced by proposed extensions of Sounder commuter rail. This is just one of several instances where the debate of necessity will come up on this map. On one side, you can say that since the train is already passing by there it only makes sense to add the stations. On the other side, you can say that it would be more worthwhile to invest in more bus service to/from Everett and thus help maintain the schedule reliability of the train. For my part, I would say that it would be best to build the stations in those two cities, but only to have them served by the proposed extensions of Sounder (much like how the map shows service operating between Seattle and Tacoma). Between Portland and Pasco (Tri-Cities), the map again proposes the addition of two new stations at Camas/Washougal and Umatilla, though the latter is actually mislabled. In the case of the former, if there was enough money then by all means build in, but realistically this station is a no-go. It’s actually close enough to Vancouver to be in the C-TRAN service area, and arguably that connection is all that Camas and Washougal need. Further down the line, the map shows a station at The Dalles, but this is a mistake as The Dalles is actually across the river in Oregon, and so it should be labelled as the currently existing stop at Wishram. (As a sidenote, the former Amtrak Pioneer route did stop in The Dalles, which I’ll cover more later.) As already mentioned, Umatilla is also a mislabel on the map. If it were labelled correctly, it would be Plymouth. Once again, it’s arguable as to whether a station would be needed here, as most of the potential ridership base resides south of the river in Umatilla, Boardman, Irrigon, and Hermiston, which would all be better served by another possible passenger rail route that would fall under the domain of Oregon DOT. (Again, more later.)
Finally, there’s the third and last option to cross the Cascades. On the map, a brand new rail line roughly following Interstate 90 is shown accommodating both high-speed rail and local rail. Years ago, the old Milwaukee Road rail line did cover this route, though the only thing remaining today is the railbed, which is now used as the Iron Horse Trail. Currently, there is a rail line over Stampede Pass (BNSF Stampede Subdivision), which is only used sparingly as an overload route to relieve pressure on the Cascade Pass and Columbia River Gorge lines. I discussed in my post “Why Isn’t There a Seattle-Pasco Train?” how it would take significant financial investment to upgrade the Stampede Pass line so that more trains could use it. Though it might seem like a high price tag, it would still be arguably cheaper than building a completely new line over the Milwaukee Road ROW, even if it meant eliminating the proposed stations at Issaquah and North Bend (both cities which are pretty well connected by existing transit service). The proposed station at Snoqualmie Pass (the ski resort) would also be impossible, as the Stampede Pass line doesn’t come anywhere near it. A station in Cle Elum would be possible, though again we come back to the argument of whether the cost is justifiable. Considering it is about 25 miles from Ellensburg and would cover nearby Roslyn and Easton (and could even accommodate a Snoqualmie Pass shuttle), I think it would work out ok.
Next, there’s the two spur lines serving the Okanogan Valley and the Palouse. On the map, the rail line heading north to Omak before Wenatchee is technically correct, but not realistic. As the spur towards Omak joins the Cascade Pass line inside Wenatchee city limits (and less than a mile from Columbia Station), any possible service towards Omak would have to stop there anyways. There would also be a need for a train turnaround, as the layout of the rail lines would leave the train towards Omak heading north with the engine at the back. Finally, out of all the proposed routes on this map, I think the route to Omak would generate the lowest ridership and farebox recovery. Currently, there is an intercity bus service called the Apple Line running one round trip daily between Omak and Ellensburg, serving every city along Highway 97. Rather than spending the money to build the three proposed stations at Chelan, Pateros, and Omak, it would be better to invest in more frequent service on the Apple Line to get it running a minimum of 4 times daily. Over in the Palouse, the map shows a proposed new route that would run from Spokane and serve stops in Rosalia and Colfax (the latter not actually being on the rail line, though the town of Palouse is) before reaching the EOL in Pullman. With WSU being in Pullman, you can argue that there would be plenty of potential ridership on this line. Like the Okanogan Valley line, I question the viability of this route, not for the ridership but for the rail line itself. To get to Pullman, the train would have to travel over rail line that is owned and maintained by WSDOT. In several parts of Washington State, WSDOT has bought up rail lines from bankrupt short-line carriers and mainline carriers that no longer use the lines in the interest of preserving a link for agricultural customers in the area. As these lines only see freight traffic currently, they would undoubtedly be in moderate condition at best, still using bolted rail (versus the welded rail a lot of the main lines are now being upgraded with) and subject to slow orders. Like the Okanogan Valley, there is already intercity bus service between Pullman and Spokane being operated by Northwestern Trailways (2 times daily) and Wheatland Express (1 time daily; 2 times daily on Fridays). Again, it would be more realistic to invest the money on boosting service on the Highway 195 corridor from the 3/4 trips daily to a minimum of 6 trips daily.
Though not a spur line, there is also a local rail route shown on the map that goes from Pasco (Tri-Cities) to Walla Walla before continuing on to Boise. In short, without building a new rail line this route is impossible. While it would be possible to have a passenger train run from Pasco to Walla Walla (though it would be more feasible to boost service on the existing Grape Line route), the rail line south of Walla Walla ends at Weston OR, ending any possibility of connecting with the UP La Grande Subdivision further south at Pendleton OR. If we wanted, we could have a train that goes to Boise (and continues on to Salt Lake City and Denver, and even Chicago), which would likely mean the resurrection of the Amtrak Pioneer route. Before it was discontinued in 1997, the route ran between Seattle and Chicago by way of Portland, Boise, Salt Lake City, Denver, and points between. In a 2008 study on the possible restoration of the Pioneer, it was shown that restoring the route between Seattle and Salt Lake City (with through cars to Chicago joining the California Zephyr) would generate the highest farebox recovery for the lowest operating subsidy, even though it had the lowest possible productivity compared to other long-distance routes at the time. Doing this would be a multi-state effort in collaboration with Amtrak, but as a part of an expanded Washington State passenger rail system it would fill a key part. Note that there would also be the option of taking the train running between Seattle and Pasco (Tri-Cities) and having it continue south to Hermiston and then east towards Boise, but it would require an awkward turnaround movement at Pasco and would require the use of slow rail line from there to Hermiston, so the Pioneer would likely be the best option.
Further east on the map, we have three more lines running between Ellensburg and Pasco (Tri-Cities), Ellensburg and Spokane, and Pasco (Tri-Cities) and Spokane. I won’t spend much time on the Ellensburg – Pasco (Tri-Cities) route, as I covered that pretty well in the “Why Isn’t There a Seattle-Pasco Train?” post I’ve mentioned already. Except for the exclusion of a station at Toppenish (which still has a fully intact NP Depot, though it is being used as a museum) and the necessity of building a new station in Sunnyside (which might not be entirely justifiable financially), this route is fine. There is a lot to talk about on the Ellensburg-Spokane route though. Currently, there is no rail line between Ellensburg and Ephrata, nor has there ever been. Instead, any train serving Ephrata would have come to/from Wenatchee, so we’ll discuss it from there and come back to Ellensburg in a bit. Down the line from Wenatchee is a proposed new stop at Quincy. Ignoring the small population of the town, this would be a no-go from the start just because of the close proximity to the existing Wenatchee and Ephrata stops. The town is currently served by Grant Transit Authority on weekdays/Saturdays, which is more than adequate, but it would be worth looking into a transit link between Quincy and Wenatchee. Further down the line, there are proposed new stations at Coulee City, Wilbur, Davenport, and Medical Lake. In actuality, not one of these 4 towns are on the rail line between Wenatchee and Spokane (though they are on a spur line owned by WSDOT, but it only runs from Coulee City to Cheney). Between Ephrata and Spokane, the only towns on the rail line with any significant population are Odessa and Harrington, neither of which could justify a station. Going back to Ellensburg, there is a proposal that comes up every now and then which could add another route to the map and further increase rail capacity overall for the state. Between Ellensburg and Lind was where part of the old Milwaukee Road rail line ran. Part of the line is still in active use (currently owned by WSDOT and BNSF), and so there is the possibility of rebuilding the rest of the line. It wouldn’t be cheap, as the lowball estimate would put the cost somewhere around $200 million ($2 million/mile). If the line were to be rebuilt, we could possibly have a new station at Othello, as well as a faster route between Seattle and Spokane for the HSR route. Lastly, we have the route between Pasco (Tri-Cities) and Spokane. Of the five proposed new stations on the route, Ritzville and Cheney both have existing stations still in good condition. Ritzville’s is currently being used as a town/NP museum, while Cheney’s is being used as BNSF offices. Minimal work would be required to bring these stations up to standard, and both can easily be justified as stops on the route. In the case of Lind and Sprague, both towns are too small to justify stops. Finally, there is Connell, and while it could be argued that there is enough people in town to justify a stop, they would be much better served by adding a stop on the Greyhound route that already passes by daily, as well as a transit route between there and the Tri-Cities (something that never existed).
In conclusion, I will say again that I’m glad this map has been released to help foster discussion about the future of passenger rail in Washington State. However, with this post I wanted to help clear up some details and help improve the overall accuracy of the map. Anyone can draw lines on a piece of paper, but as transit advocates it is crucial to make sure we have a plan that is clear and concise, as well as realistic and error-free.
If you have any thoughts or responses to this post or the map, feel free to comment below or send me a tweet to @ziggzagzac.
UPDATE 2/6/14: After I first shared this, Ben Schiendelman and Jeff Hammerquist from Friends of Transit made some updates to the map based on the feedback from this post. (To view the full version, see the .pdf.)
Also, hello to everyone from today’s Open Thread on the Seattle Transit Blog!