State legislators consider potential for rail service between Beaverton and Salem

State legislators are considering a feasibility study for a rail connection from Beaverton to Salem, a major step in a dream long held by regional transit officials.

Without a clear intent for project governance, though, the Salem Area Mass Transit District, also known as Cherriots, warns that the study could collect dust.

If approved, House Bill 2662 would allocate $500,000 in state funding to study on expanding TriMet’s Westside Express Service line, which stops in Wilsonville, down to Salem.

Legislators in the Joint Committee on Transportation held a public hearing on the matter on Feb. 21. They heard testimony in support of the study, including from Ian Davidson, board president of Cherriots, and a letter from Salem Mayor Chris Hoy.

“Bringing regional rail to Salem and Keizer would be transformational, that’s the most succinct way I can put it,” Davidson told Salem Reporter. “Bringing commuter rail, which is less frequent rail and not all day, would be huge as well. It just wouldn’t be transformational in the way that regional rail would be.”

The study would also look into increasing the Westside Express Services’ frequency of service. The existing service runs every 45 minutes on weekdays, during the morning and afternoon rush hours.

If approved, the feasibility study would also evaluate the potential for getting the train on the old Oregon Electric Railway that runs toward Salem.

The bill lists the Oregon Department of Transportation, TriMet and Portland & Western Railroad as collaborators on the study. The agencies are asked to consult relevant transit agencies in the area for the study.

The Cherriots board unanimously supported the bill in its January meeting, which Davidson said fits in their mission of creating community connections.

It’s been a long-time dream of the agency. In 2013, its Keizer Transit Center opened next to the existing rails, with the hope that one day it could host a commuter rail stop, according to Davidson. 

A similar bill made it to the Joint Committee on Ways and Means in 2019, where it died at the end of the session.

The long-held hope of extending the rail beyond Wilsonville has been held up by governance, Davidson said.

“I know it’s boring, I know it’s wonky, but that – in my mind – is the greatest obstacle. There is no entity in Oregon with a strong mandate to explore passenger rail, in Oregon writ-large, but especially in the Willamette Valley,” he said. 

He asked the committee to consider amending the bill to specifically consider who would govern the expansion. Under current law, Davidson said the rail would be out of TriMet’s service area, and Cherriots too.

“Law would have to change for us to be even able to run it, and beyond that we don’t even have the revenue to be able to run something like this. I think a whole new entity would need to be created,” he said.

Hoy’s letter in support of the bill, backed unanimously by the Salem City Council, said that the commuter rail would provide a reliable car-free option for commuters, and reduce greenhouse gas emissions aligning with the city’s Climate Action Plan

Following the public hearing, the bill’s next step will be to move into a work session, which has not been scheduled as of Feb. 28, according to the legislature’s website.

Contact reporter Abbey McDonald: [email protected] or 503-704-0355.

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Abbey McDonald joined the Salem Reporter in 2022. She previously worked as the business reporter at The Astorian, where she covered labor issues, health care and social services. A University of Oregon grad, she has also reported for the Malheur Enterprise, The News-Review and Willamette Week.