The long process of planning for more and faster passenger rail service in the Willamette Valley is about to take another step.

It's the preparation of an environmental impact statement to cover increased rail service between Portland and Eugene.

The U.S. Department of transportation has approved a grant of nearly

$9 million, and about half will be spent on the Portland-Eugene corridor study, said Betsy Imholt, rail study director for ODOT Rail.

It will be a "big public process," she said.

Among other things, the study will nail down the preferred route for additional service and even, eventually, high speed trains.

The choices, at least on paper, are the Union Pacific mainline, the former Oregon Electric line or a completely new alignment, according to Imholt. The Union Pacific is encouraging the state to consider the Oregon Electric route.

An earlier assessment done for ODOT, published in June, said expanding the Oregon Electric track for passenger service would be less expensive - at an estimated $1.8 billion - than expanding service on the mainline.

Imholt said both alternatives would make use of Albany Station, renovated within the past few years at a cost of more than $10 million.

Both would also use the new stations in Salem and Eugene, according to a schematic in the June rail study.

Union Pacific has raised a number of issues that would make it difficult - and probably more expensive than the $2.1 billion estimated in the June study - to expand the railroad's mainline between Eugene and Portland for added passenger trains.

In a letter to ODOT Rail in July, Jerry Wilmoth, the general manager of Union Paficic network infrastructure in Roseville, Calif., said expanded passenger operations were not easily compatible with this heavily used freight route.

"Oregon is fortunate to have the ready option of the parallel former Oregon Electric route, which could be developed without the major challenge of melding a dense overhead and local freight operation with the desired high speed passenger trains," Wilmoth wrote.

From Salem, Imholt said completing the environmental impact statement is a requirement before the state can apply for federal funds to do the actual expansion of any route.

Of the nearly $9 million Oregon is to receive for rail planning, $4.2 million is for the Eugene-Portland corridor plan. The plan will cost $10 million, Imholt said, but ODOT already has the balance.

Some $3.96 million of the grant is for preliminary engineering and planning of renovations and track repairs at Portland's Union Station.

And $800,000 is to update the state's rail plan, another federal requirement because the state's existing plan is from the 1990s.

Consultants will be engaged for all the work, Imholt said.

She could not say when actual service improvements might be expected. But the impact statement will include a business plan so that improvements in passenger service can be made as it becomes feasible.

"All it takes is money," said Imholt, whose last name is pronounced IMEholt.

The $9 million federal transportation grant for more rail planning was announced by Sens. Ron Wyden and Jeff Merkley, both Oregon Democrats, on Monday.

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