This week’s recommendations from the Oregon Passenger Rail Leadership Council about two routes to explore for a high-speed rail line between Portland and Eugene didn’t come as a surprise.

The council identified a pair of routes worthy of additional exploration for what could be a multibillion-dollar project. The eventual goal is to develop a route that could be used to ferry passengers between Portland and Eugene in about the same amount of time — less, if possible — than is needed to drive between the cities.

There are no guarantees that sufficient money ever will be found for the project. But, if it does, members of the Leadership Council — a group of about 20 officials and others working on the project with the Oregon Department of Transportation — want to be sure that a preferred route has been identified.

At a meeting Tuesday, members of the council (which includes Albany Mayor Sharon Konopa and state Rep. Sara Gelser of Corvallis and Philomath) gave the thumbs-up to two suggested routes: One follows an existing Union Pacific line along Highway 99 East. The other would be a new rail corridor which would follow Interstate 5.

Both routes include Albany, which was expected — and logical, considering that Albany has a working rail depot. Despite a spirited push by passenger rail advocates in Benton County, neither route runs through Corvallis, and there’s some logic behind that: Routing the line through Corvallis would tend to make it harder to make the trip by rail in the preferred time frame.

The next step is to run environmental impact studies on the two preferred options. The price tag for this evaluation phase is a cool $10 million, with $5.8 million coming from ODOT and $4.2 million coming from the federal government. A decision on the route is due in 2015, and then the wait for funding will begin. When and if the dough becomes available, the fact that a route has been selected and is ready to go could make all the difference: It’s the rail equivalent of those so-called “shovel-ready” lands.

With all that said, nothing about this project is guaranteed. To list one potential issue, we haven’t yet really heard from small communities along the proposed routes about what they really think about trains rolling through their towns at 100 mph.

All the more reason to keep plugging away on passenger rail solutions for the entire mid-valley. Gelser said she would work on improving transportation connections between Albany and Corvallis, including a spur line between the cities.

Chances seem slim that the feds will be standing by in 2015 with a $2 billion check to fund the entire project. So we’ve got time to make sure we develop a passenger rail system that serves the needs of the entire mid-valley. (mm)

Mike McInally is the editor of the Democrat-Herald. He can be reached at 541-812-6097 or mike.mcinally@lee.net

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