All Politics is Local

A proposal to create commuter rail to Portland

A little more than a month ago, Metro Editor Mark Bowder asked me (OK, he told me) to write about why there is no commuter service between Vancouver and Portland.

This was a “Clark Asks” story where Columbian readers suggest topics and vote on which story gets covered.

My reporting indicated that Amtrak was created for intercity passenger rail, not commuter rail. Fares cover only 63 percent of the costs to operate the existing Amtrak Cascades, which runs from Vancouver, British Columbia, to Eugene, Ore., and serves 16 cities in between, including our Vancouver.

Neither the Washington State Department of Transportation nor the Oregon Department of Transportation is eager to get into the commuter rail business. And BNSF Railway was noncommittal at best when asked about adding commuter trains to their tracks and bridges when they earn their money by moving freight, not people.

Turns on that someone else took a far-more detailed look at commuter rail more than five years ago.

Kirk Slack, who operates Atira Consulting Inc. in Portland, emailed me a copy of his 32-page proposal from April 2014.

I spent about an hour going through the document and was impressed by the level of thought Slack had put into his plan. His thoroughness is reflected in the project’s estimated cost, an eye-popping $122.34 million.

Some of the big-ticket items: $36.19 million for commuter trains; $21.56 million for design and construction administration; $20.16 million for a “fly over” bridge from Mill Plain Boulevard to a new Park & Ride lot; and $17.46 million for a maintenance facility.

“I took the proposal to the city of Vancouver and several members of the Portland City Council,” Slack wrote in his email. “I also met with a senior management official from CH2M Hill regarding a public-private partnership avenue. The issue I ran into was how the project would be paid for.”

As I learned a long time ago, it’s always about the money.

Slack’s proposal is worth reading and can be found on his company’s website, www.atiraconsulting.com.