SOUNDOFF: Transportation effort on track

Americans spent the latter half the 20th century forsaking trains for cars. Following World War II, everyone believed automobiles were the wave of the future. Cities ripped up trolley-car tracks from their streets and people headed out onto the brand-new freeways to see the USA in their Chevrolets.

Those once-wide-open ribbons of pavement are now clogged with more Chevrolets than they could ever hold. We're again turning to trains to help bypass the highway gridlock and get us and our goods where we need to be.

Railroading is our past, but I believe it will be part of our future. While the state Senate was crafting a $4.1 billion bipartisan transportation strategy for the next 10 years, we made sure to put money into passenger and freight rail improvements. We've also committed to making our ferry terminals more accessible to existing commuter rail lines so getting to work won't necessarily mean driving a car anymore — even if you live on an island.

Funded by a 0.3 percent sales tax on motor vehicles and the sale of general obligation bonds, our rail strategy consists of $210 million to improve the tracks between Bellingham and Vancouver, Wash. The lion's share of that total — $165 million — would go toward improving passenger rail service along that heavily traveled border-to-border corridor. We're also in line to receive some federal matching funds for passenger rail improvements.

Intercity passenger service north of Seattle will be faster and more frequent once $21 million in improvements are made between Seattle and Bellingham. These projects would allow Amtrak's popular Cascades regional passenger service to inaugurate a second daily round trip between Seattle and Vancouver, B.C. The Amtrak Cascades now offers one international round trip each day. Another trip would make life easier for Americans and Canadians who don't want to wait in line to cross the border.

Partially funded by the state, the Amtrak Cascades is a success story that's only getting better. It serves the entire length of the 466-mile Pacific Northwest Rail Corridor, from Vancouver, B.C. to Eugene, Ore., and ridership has increased 83 percent since 1993.

In the southern half of the state, $127 million in track improvements would make passenger service between Seattle and Portland faster and more reliable. The Amtrak Cascades' three daily round trips between Seattle and Portland would benefit from this investment, as would Amtrak's Coast Starlight, which travels daily between Seattle and Los Angeles.

What if you can't get to a train station because there's water in the way?

Picture this: You live on Whidbey Island and you want to travel to Canada without your car. Thanks to $195 million allocated during the next decade to renovate four state ferry terminals, ferry riders will eventually be able to step off the boat and onto a train — or bus — and go virtually anywhere.

The Mukilteo ferry terminal that serves Whidbey Island will benefit from most of those improvements. For a 10-year investment of $128 million, the current facility will be moved so it can be better served by the existing Seattle-to-Everett commuter rail line, more parking will be added and buses will have better access. The Anacortes terminal serving the San Juan Islands would get a similar makeover for $67 million.

Getting our state's agricultural products and other goods to market quickly is what makes freight rail especially critical to our rural areas. The Senate's 10-year plan includes $45 million for freight mobility projects.

This investment would improve rail access to ports, preserve rail corridors and create economic opportunities for communities.

Some of the freight mobility dollars would repair railroad crossings around the state where railroads and roadways come into conflict. These hot points -- where trains have to wait for cars and cars have to wait for trains -- literally stall goods and keep them from customers, costing farmers time and money.

It's too late to erase nearly 60 years of car culture, which has left as its legacy far-flung suburbs and shopping centers with acres of parking stalls. Cars represent freedom in the United States, and we love them too much to give them up. But it's not too late to make a sincere and realistic investment in alternative forms of transportation that can prevent us from continuing any further down the road to ruin.

Sen. Mary Margaret Haugen, D-Camano Island, represents Island County and portions of Skagit and Snohomish counties, including the cities of La Conner, Oak Harbor and Stanwood.

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