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Washington hopes to benefit from rejected Florida rail funds

The Amtrak Cascades passenger train running along the bottom of a steep bluff near Steilacoom
The Amtrak Cascades passenger train running along the bottom of a steep bluff near Steilacoom

Today is the deadline for Washington and other states to apply for a share of more than $2 billion in federal high-speed rail money that Florida rejected. State officials hope to use some of that money to tackle landslides that have made rail travel this winter unreliable.

Much of the railroad track between Olympia and the Canadian border runs in a narrow strip of land between steep hillsides and Puget Sound. And when those bluffs get soaked with rain, gravity takes its toll. 

Ron Witt, with the state Department of Transportation’s rail program, says the landslides have been a major headache this year.

We're as frustrated with the mudslide issues as anyone. It is a huge issue for us to meet our service outcome agreements that we've agreed to with Burlington Northern and Amtrak and certainly Sound Transit.

In fact, when I spoke with Witt on Friday afternoon, he said he's just gotten word of yet another mudslide near Mukilteo, which was going to shut down the tracks for 48 hours. So far this season, rail tracks have been shut down by dozens of mudslides. More than 50 of them have disrupted passenger rail for two days or more.

In fact, in the first three months of 2011, there have been more mudslides on the tracks than in the previous four years combined. A majority of the closures have hit between Seattle and Everett, playing havoc with the Sounder commuter train, not to mention the Amtrak Cascades run between Vancouver B.C. and Portland.

Ron Witt says it’s not just the weather:

A lot of it has had to do with development over time, and improper drainage. So there's a whole lot of issues we're looking at right now.

With that in mind, Witt’s department is applying to get federal funds to help stabilize these hillsides. The state has already gotten more than $750 million in federal rail grants to un-jam bottlenecks, upgrade track and add new trains.

Now state officials are hoping the next batch of money will pay for engineering, design and construction that will help keep Puget Sound hillsides where they belong.

Liam Moriarty started with KPLU in 1996 as our freelance correspondent in the San Juan Islands. He’s been our full-time Environment Reporter since November, 2006. In between, Liam was News Director at Jefferson Public Radio in Ashland, Oregon for three years and reported for a variety of radio, print and web news sources in the Northwest. He's covered a wide range of environment issues, from timber, salmon and orcas to oil spills, land use and global warming. Liam is an avid sea kayaker, cyclist and martial artist.