Tuesday, July 12, 2011

Vancouver USA Rail Project Funds Threatened

Federal transportation stimulus funding that was redirected to a Port of Vancouver USA rail project earlier this year may be on the chopping block if Congressional Republicans have their way.

In May, the United States Department of Transportation announced that the Washington-state port was selected to receive $15 million for the port's West Vancouver Freight Access (WVFA) rail modernization project. The funds were to come from the $2.4 billion in high-speed rail funds that Florida Governor Rick Scott rejected in February.

However, Congressional GOP members led by Rep. Rodney Frelinghuysen of New Jersey have pushed forward an amendment to the Energy and Water Development Appropriations Bill that would eliminate $2.3 billion in federal stimulus dollars, including $1.6 billion of the Florida high-speed funds that have now been promised to 15 states.

The amendment, which would have to receive approval from both the House and Senate, seeks to eliminate all stimulus funds that are yet to be officially allocated – referred to in the amendment as 'unobligated funds.'

The $15 million in stimulus funds for the Vancouver rail project remains classified as 'unobligated.' If the classification of the funds is changed to 'obligated' before the amendment passes, the port would still receive the funds.

Since first proposing the amendment, Rep. Frelinghuysen has added that he wants to see the 'unobligated' stimulus funds shifted to pay for federal expenses related to the floods, tornadoes and other natural disasters recently in the Midwest.

Vancouver port officials had planned to invest the $15 million windfall in the construction of a rail access point at the east end of the port that is separate from the BNSF mainline. The $38 million project – part of the overall $150 million WVFA plan – is set to start by April 2013, with scheduled completion in January 2016. The port had planned to pick up the remaining $23 million cost of the project after applying the federal stimulus funds.

Divided into 20 project elements, the overall WVFA project includes construction of a new dual carrier rail access into the port, enhancement of the port’s internal rail system, relocation of port facilities and utilities to accommodate track realignment, and improvements to port roadways.

The WVFA, the largest capital investment in the port's history, is at the heart of port officials' efforts to attract new business and retain existing businesses.

"We needed to increase our rail capacity. We needed to handle unit trains that are more than 100 rail cars long and unclog a bottleneck caused by trains coming into the port, stalling national rail lines to the west coast," port Executive Director Larry Paulson said in April.

In July 2010, the port completed a rail loop project as the final phase of its $66 million Terminal 5 rail upgrade project – itself the first key component of the larger WVFA project. Completed ahead of schedule and on budget, the rail loop marked the first major milestone under the West Vancouver Freight Access and Industrial Track Agreement, a deal reached between the port and BNSF in 2008 that provides the overall blueprint and timeline for the WVFA project. The entire WVFA project is set for completion some time in 2017.

When completed, the WVFA is expected to triple the rail car capacity of the port-area BNSF tracks.