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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Pandemic relief bill would restore daily Empire Builder train service — and advocates push for more

Empire Builder passengers disembark from a train arriving from Portland just after midnight in Spokane in 2017.  (COLIN MULVANY/THE SPOKESMAN-REVIEW)

Daily passenger rail service is on track to return to Spokane.

Nearly half a year after Amtrak reduced service on the Empire Builder to three days a week due to a precipitous decline in revenue and ridership, all that’s needed to restore its schedule is President Joe Biden’s signature on the pandemic relief bill that the Senate passed on Saturday and that the House is expected to approve this week.

That bill, known as the American Rescue Plan, includes a provision that requires the Empire Builder to return to daily service within 90 days of being signed into law.

Charlie Hamilton, co-executive director for All Aboard Washington, expressed relief that the state’s only east-west passenger rail connection will soon run back and forth along its 2,200-mile route between Chicago and, alternately, Seattle and Portland every day.

“Trying to do it three days a week is impossible,” Hamilton. “Trying to schedule something that doesn’t run every day just isn’t feasible.”

The cuts in service started Oct. 19 and represented the first time since 1997 that Spokane was without passenger rail available every day.

Before the pandemic, in 2019, nearly 47,000 passengers arrived and departed from the station in the Spokane Intermodal Center, according to the Rail Passengers Association.

Last year, Spokane saw about a 40% decline in the number of people using the city’s downtown train station, according to the Washington State Department of Transportation.

Sharp declines systemwide led William Flynn, the rail line’s president and CEO, to not only cut some service but also to ask lawmakers for $4.86 billion to preserve Amtrak service, including $1.11 billion for long-distance service like that offered on the Empire Builder.

The $1.9 trillion relief bill heading to Biden’s desk includes $2 billion for Amtrak, including $166 million specifically for the Empire Builder and for reinstating Amtrak employees furloughed during the pandemic.

Those provisions come courtesy of Montana Sen. Jon Tester, according to the Montana Free Press. He touted the train as an economic driver along the remote northern stretch of Montana known as the Hi-Line.

Washington Sen. Maria Cantwell has also pushed for Amtrak funding, citing similar reasons. In an October meeting of the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation, she argued that “Amtrak is the only means of public transportation providing a direct line for economic success in rural communities and across the state” and urged investment in the rail line.

Hamilton said he believes the America Rescue Plan package could just be the start of an infusion of investments in the country’s rail network.

“What we’re hearing is that there will be a considerable amount of support for rail,” Hamilton said of the Biden administration and the Democrat-held Congress.

One vehicle for delivering that support could be the revival and reintroduction of a climate-friendly $1.5 trillion infrastructure bill that included “significant rail stuff” and that passed the House of Representatives before dying in the Senate last year, Hamilton said.

But there’s another mechanism, beyond money, that Hamilton says lawmakers are considering that could be a game-changer for passenger rail in Washington and the region: interstate rail commissions.

These wonky-sounding bodies would serve as “a conduit for federal funds” and create an important new way of capturing and allocating grant money for projects, Hamilton said.

If legislation allows their formation, as Hamilton hopes, he said Washington would look to partner with Oregon as well as perhaps Idaho and Montana to create such a commission and begin putting together a more comprehensive Northwest passenger rail system.

Work is already underway on various discrete pieces of such a system, Hamilton said.

In Montana, the newly formed Big Sky Passenger Rail Authority is pursuing a plan to restore a long-out-of-service passenger line through some of the state’s largest cities, including Missoula, Bozeman and Butte. If it comes to fruition, that line would “probably end in Spokane,” Hamilton said.

Last year, the Washington Legislature received the result of a $250,000 study that looked at the feasibility of adding a new east-west route that would connect Spokane to Seattle via Pasco, Toppenish, Yakima, Cle Elum, Auburn and Stampede Pass.

Among the options considered was a train that would leave, and return to, Spokane twice a day during more amendable hours than the Empire Builder, which arrives and departs in the middle of the night.

While that plan faces significant financial and logistical hurdles, Hamilton said talks are already underway about the possibility of extending that new east-west route beyond Spokane, into Idaho and perhaps Montana.

“That’s still very much in the thinking stage,” he said. “But because of the fact that there may be money at the federal level, it looks more feasible now than it did 6 months ago.”

With some newfound momentum behind passenger rail, Hamilton said All Aboard Washington hopes to keep pushing progress forward.

“We’re actually giving a presentation to the state House Transportation Committee on Thursday,” Hamilton said. “They have asked us to give us a recommendation for where we want to see improvements in the state’s passenger rail system.”

Hamilton said his group plans to ask lawmakers in Olympia to pass legislation authorizing the governor to appoint members of an as-yet nonexistent interstate rail commission.

While it may seem somewhat premature, Hamilton said such authorization would clear the tracks for fast progress if and when Congress passes a bill.

“We have lots more work to do,” Hamilton said.

Passenger rail wasn’t the only transit entity that stands to get a boost from the relief bill.

It also include $8 billion to aid airports and $30.5 billion for public transit, according to the Washington Post.

The Spokane Transit Authority will receive $35 million if the legislation is signed into law without changes, said Brandon Rapez-Betty, STA’s communications and customer services director.

He said STA’s board will likely take “a few months” to decide how best to spend the money within the legislation’s parameters.

“Whether to support the agency’s operational costs or to invest in transit improvements that create economic opportunity, the funding is intended to be a ‘rescue’ tool,” Rapez-Betty said in an email.