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Lawmakers (again) consider sending WES on a longer ride

Photo Credit: TRIBUNE FILE PHOTO: JAIME VALDEZ - TriMet's WES commuter rail travels through Beaverton on its 14.7-mile run to Wilsonville. A bill in the 2015 Legislature could set up a state task force to study expansion of the rail line to Salem.Should TriMet’s WES commuter rail become the Little Engine That Could Connect With Salem?

Maybe.

If the Legislature agrees, a 17-member task force could study whether the 14.7-mile commuter rail line running from Wilsonville to downtown Beaverton should be expanded to carry passengers nearly 30 miles to the south into downtown Salem. House Bill 2553, sponsored by state Rep. Mitch Greenlick, a Northwest Portland Democrat, is chug-chug-chugging into this session in hopes of establishing the task force.

“I believe that it is likely that WES will be extended to Salem (at least),” Greenlick says. “Although it is possible it will be solved as part of the ‘higher speed’ program Amtrak is exploring.”

Passenger rail advocates like the idea of an expanded commuter rail system, saying it might be an environmentally sound alternative to automobile commuting on frequently congested Interstate 5.

“I think it will happen,” says Dan McFarling of Aloha, president of the Association of Oregon Rail and Transit Advocates (known as AORTA). “As time marches on we’re going to realize more and more the need to rely on rail transport to move people and freight, because rail is far more efficient in terms of energy and the environment. It’s actually the only way to go in the future.”

WES (known as the Westside Express Service) began operating in February 2009. WES trains run every 30 minutes from about 5:30 to 10 a.m. and again from 3:30 to 8 p.m. on weekdays. It takes about 27 minutes to make the trip from Wilsonville to Beaverton. The train doesn't run on weekends.

Last year, an average of 1,880 riders used the train each weekday. Many people commute by bus between Salem and Wilsonville and then hop on the commuter rail line.

Expansion of WES is not a new issue. Lawmakers have talked about stretching the regional commuter rail system for several years, taking little action beyond a state study five years ago. Greenlick says he proposed HB 2553 primarily to keep the idea of commuter rail expansion alive.

During the 2013 legislative session, Greenlick’s House Bill 2338 (a carbon-copy of HB 2553) had a committee hearing but failed to make it to a House vote.

During a March 18, 2013, hearing before the House Committee on Transportation and Economic Development, McFarling and Wilsonville Mayor Tim Knapp supported the task force plan. “Vigorous public transit services help provide employers with the ability to recruit and retain the best workforce, no matter where employees may live,” Knapp told the committee.

Old Oregon Electric line

Even before WES began operating, regional planners and mid-Willamette Valley public officials talked about possible expansion of the line. An April 2010 study by the Oregon Department of Transportation’s Rail Division estimated that it would cost between $327 million and $387 million (in 2008 dollars) to extend commuter rail service to the south. It might also cost an estimated between $5 million and $7 million more each year to operate the expanded rail line between Wilsonville and Salem, according to the five-year-old report.

Most of the construction costs for possible expansion included in the ODOT report involved improving existing tracks and bridges between Wilsonville and Salem, and building stations in Woodburn, Keizer and Salem.

Part of the route north of Salem would follow the old Oregon Electric Railway tracks, McFarling says. That line, which began operating more than 100 years ago, included 122 miles of track across northern part of the state, from Gresham to Forest Grove, and from Portland to Eugene. Between 1908 and May 1933, Oregon Electric trains carried passengers up and down the Willamette Valley every day.

Sections of TriMet’s MAX Blue Line follow Oregon Electric rights of way.

Today, many of the Oregon Electric routes are used by freight trains. Amtrak’s Empire Builder, Coast Starlight and Cascades trains run on some of the track from California to the Canadian border. Amtrak is working with state rail planners on possible expansion of its daily rail service through the Willamette Valley.

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