Reflections from a train
OEC’s Encore Fellow, Daniel Schaffer, commutes to Portland twice a week by train from Keizer, OR. Today, he will share his thoughts with members of the Oregon Legislature:
For the past three months, I’ve been taking the Amtrak Cascades from my home outside of Salem to the offices of the Oregon Environmental Council in Portland, where I’ve been working part-time as an Encore Fellow through Portland’s Social Venture Partners.
Proposals now being considered in the Oregon Legislature to slash state funds from $10.4 million to $5 million over the next five years would not just stall, but put an end to the service that makes my, and many others’, work life possible. Budget assessments show that $10.4 million is the minimum needed to keep the trains rolling. Without it, service between Portland and Eugene will fall victim to the budget axe.
On a typical morning commute from Salem, 30 to 40 people await the arrival of the 6:42 a.m. Cascades 500. About half are commuters. Some take the train each day. Others, like me, do so only one or two times each week. There are students and seniors, too. On Thursdays and Fridays, passengers heading to Portland, Seattle and Vancouver for the weekend join the “regulars.” If a holiday is close at hand – for instance, President Day’s in February – the numbers grow.
Ridership statistics, of course, are important. No one wants to invest in a transportation system that no one uses. But Amtrak Cascades, which schedules four daily round trips between Portland and Seattle and two daily round trips between Portland and Eugene (and two between Seattle and Vancouver as well), accommodates some 800,000 passengers each year. The Portland to Eugene leg of the track, with stops in Oregon City, Salem and Albany, accounts for about 15% of the total.
Amtrak Cascades provides tangible economic benefits to our region. It spurs spending on travel–more than $35 million in 2009, according to government transportation reports. It generates one million dollars in local tax revenues and two million dollars in state tax revenues. It creates an estimated 600 jobs. And this service saves roadway costs by reducing wear-and-tear on our streets and highways. It does all of this, by the way, while curbing the state’s carbon emissions.
Yet, beyond the numbers, what Cascades Amtrak really represents is the future of transportation–at least a critical aspect of the future. That doesn’t mean that rail is the only solution to rush-hour gridlock on Interstate 5. But it does provide another important tool for addressing Oregon’s daunting transportation challenges.
The automobile-dominated transportation system of the past 70 years is coming to a close. Private cars, of course, will remain a central aspect of getting around. But streetcars, buses, car-shares, bikes, sidewalks and, yes, interurban rail systems will become key elements in a diverse transportation matrix that give people choices and render the system more efficient, resilient, and environmentally sound.
The legislature’s continued support for Amtrak Cascades will not only help improve the quality of life both in Oregon and the Northwest but also send a strong signal that the state recognizes its transportation system will need a vibrant rail component. It is a lesson found in Europe where a rail network, spanning thousands of miles, knits together communities both large and small. And in Japan where bullet trains whisk people from city to city at speeds reaching 200 miles per hour. And in China where the government has invested billions of dollars in a national high-speed rail network that is now the largest in the world.
It is also a lesson that has begun to resonate closer to home where Acela trains, running from Boston to Washington, DC, carried over 3.3 million passengers and generated an operational surplus of more than $235 million in 2013. In March, the US House of Representatives – yes, the same governmental body that has engaged in political gridlock at virtually every turn – passed a four-year, $8 billion bipartisan reauthorization bill for Amtrak. While the federal funding mechanism may have its flaws, it’s clear that the federal government understands the importance of rail.
This is no time for Oregon’s legislature to turn its back on the future. Amtrak Cascades deserves the state’s full support, not just for the benefits that it provides right now, but also for the contributions that it can make tomorrow.