WASHINGTON – The $1.2 trillion infrastructure bill passed by Congress on Friday will pump billions of dollars into the nation’s commuter rail, freight trains and grade-level railroad crossings, helping to replace aging rail equipment and improve safety and mobility throughout Washington and Idaho .
The measure — which has been put on hold for several months due to Democratic infighting — includes about $550 billion in new funding for roads, bridges, the internet and rail, among other infrastructure-related investments. About $66 billion in funding will go to Amtrak for passenger and freight rail improvements, making it the largest investment in rail service since it was founded 50 years ago.
Charles Hamilton, co-executive director of All Aboard Washington, said provisions in the bill requiring Amtrak to continue providing rural services and to study services that have been discontinued over the years are of particular importance to the Northwest region.
Hamilton said North Coast rail services Hiawatha and Pioneer, both of which ran from Chicago to Seattle via various routes before being shut down, could fall into that category of services given a second look. He added that they hope to restart some services.
To give a picture of the current situation, Hamilton said Spokane now sees about two trains a day, one in the middle of the night and one in the early morning. He said he hopes this funding will help increase services in the region.
Hamilton added that the funding could be used to modernize old railway equipment.
“If you haven’t been on a train in a while, the only thing you need to be aware of is that the equipment is old,” he said. “Most of the equipment you see going through Spokane — if you get up at 1:30 a.m. to see it go by — is some of that equipment is from the ’80s and it’s not at its best.”
Hamilton said American railroads are behind the times.
He said, “Although it is not necessary to zoom in/out, high-speed Shinkansen equipment like those in Japan or in Europe, even with our existing railways…we can do a lot better with the equipment better”.
The infrastructure bill also allocates about $3 billion to fund improvements to ground-level railroad crossings — a plan proposed by Senator Maria Cantwell of Washington. Of the 50 grade-level rail crossings identified as a priority for improvement in Washington, eight are in Spokane County, according to a 2017 Joint Transportation Commission report.
Accidents at these railroad crossings account for 30% of railroad deaths, according to a report by Cantwell. In addition, trains stopping at these crossings can block roads for hours and lead to congestion, according to the report.
“I feel like there’s not a time when I don’t go to Spokane and turn on the news, and there’s a story about an accident or something to do with a transit of the same degree in the area,” Cantwell said in an interview with a spokesperson for The Spokane. -reconsidering.
Cantwell and fellow Democratic Senator from Washington, Patti Murray, voted in favor of the bill, as did Senators Mike Crabow and Jim Risch of Idaho, who were among 19 Republican senators who joined the Democrats. Representatives voted: Cathy McMorris Rodgers against it.
Even as the infrastructure bill heads to President Joe Biden for signature, Hamilton said it may take some time for people to feel the effects of these railroad investments.
“You have to understand it’s not going to be instant,” he said. “It will take some time before the funding flows to where it needs to go.”