Is High-Speed Rail The Region’s “Silver Bullet”?

Is High-Speed Rail The Region’s “Silver Bullet”?
The state legislature has approved $300,000 for a Vancouver, B.C. – Portland high-speed rail corridor feasibility study. Although supporters believe it could act as a solution to the region’s housing, transportation and traffic problems, others say it’s far from a “silver bullet.” Photo: Shilpy Arora.

The concept of a high-speed rail line from Vancouver, B.C. through Seattle to Portland, Oregon has acquired an unlikely coalition of supporters among state lawmakers and business associations hoping to improve economic ties throughout the Cascadia region.

Included in the 2017-19 transportation budget passed by the state legislature is $300,000 for a study to determine its feasibility as a public-private partnership.

Although similar projects are underway in the U.S. and throughout the world, transportation experts are divided over their success. Proponents argue that high-speed rail can address congestion issues and enable commuters to live farther away from their jobs in more affordable communities. Others are more cautious about the perceived benefits and ability to generate a profit. Success or failure of the concept may also depend entirely on the project’s actual design, access to necessary land, and open-mindedness about private partnerships in a state where they have proven unpopular.

A bullet train can travel 250 mph; that is five times the speed of a Sound Transit light rail vehicle and three times as fast as the Cascade Amtrak line that currently runs from Vancouver, B.C. to Portland. If built, it could reduce travel times between Vancouver, B.C. and Seattle to one hour, compared to three hours by car; the Amtrak line takes even longer, at four hours.

The potential benefits of a shortened trip provided by a bullet train proved sufficient to gain the support of private-sector groups such as the Association of Washington Business and Washington Roundtable, along with Microsoft, who is looking to strengthen economic ties with British Columbia. Also behind the proposal are Governor Inslee and British Columbia Premier Christy Clark.

Washington Roundtable Vice President Neil Strege told Lens that much of the push for a bullet train is the growing desire to connect tech industry in both regions with workers.

“We got the road system, but imagine if you could go from Seattle to Vancouver in an hour and the kind of possibilities that could create,” he said. “That (Amtrak) corridor is very unreliable. Lot of landslides and things that shut down that track effectively. High-speed rail would be not only a symbolic connection but a physical connection.”

On paper, the concept seems to have solid footing. According to a 2011 study by consulting firm Fulcrum Inquiry: “moderate-distance routes between large cities are most competitively served by high speed rail.”

Another appeal of the high-speed train proposal is that, unlike Sound Transit’s light rail system, it would be privately funded and therefore be market-driven, rather than financed through a variety of taxes. A private company named Texas Central is in the process of building a 240-mile bullet train line from Houston to Dallas. The line is expected to cut travel time between those cities from four hours driving to less than 90 minutes. Florida real estate and transportation company FECI is also working on a privately funded high-speed train between Miami and Orlando.

Andy Kunz is the president and CEO of the D.C-based U.S. High Speed Rail Association. He told Lens that “with buses, light rail, metros, all those have to be subsidized forever. High-speed rail doesn’t. It costs more to build it, but once it opens it literally pays for itself.”

He added that a bullet train could make long-distance commuting feasible for Seattle workers who are unable to afford living in the region’s hot real estate market.

“That’s the other great advantage,” he said. “It (bullet train) can completely reshape the entire region’s real estate, work patterns, employment centers. You could literally live 60 miles away and it’s actually ok to commute, whereas with a car, 60 miles is starting to push it.”

Because it is privately funded, a Vancouver-Portland bullet train’s feasibility will ultimately depend on ridership demand to pay for its construction and maintenance, while also generating a profit. That was also the conclusion of a 2007 study by the Journal of Transport Economics and Policy and a 2015 Brookings Institute article, which stated that “high-speed rail will only make economic sense when the right pieces are in place…”

With some bullet train lines such as in Italy, demand is sufficient for it to compete with national airlines. A similar situation happened in France when Train à Grande Vitesse’s (TGV’s) Paris-Lyon line opened in 1981 – an operation that remains profitable today. According to In The Black magazine, within three years the aviation’s share of trips between those routes dropped from 31 percent to 7 percent, while bullet train travel increased from 40 percent to 72 percent.

Kunz says that demand for bullet trains in the Pacific Northwest is also there, “as long as you put the station in the right place and don’t create a big nasty barrier with a parking lot surrounding the station and destroying half of the synergy.”

“Ideally you want the station right smack dab in the middle of downtown,” he added. “You want people to be able to walk to it.”

However, the enthusiasm for bullet trains is not shared by all. Critics have pointed out that the Florida bullet train builders are requesting a 25-year loan of $1.5 billion from the Federal Railroad Administration–a de facto taxpayer subsidy that they fear might lead to bailouts if projects prove unprofitable.

The Economist reports that waste and underuse in some sections of China’s publicly funded high-speed rail corridor have left the train’s state-owned operator with debts of more than $586 billion.

Washington Policy Center’s Transportation Center Director Mariya Frost told Lens that the likely use of eminent domain to obtain the necessary land for a Pacific Northwest bullet train means public interest is at stake. A part of the conversation must be how the state should use the same funding model toward achieving congestion relief.

“Why are public officials open to a P3 (public-private partnerships) for high-speed rail, but are absolutely resistant to utilizing P3’s for highway projects that measurably improve mobility for everyone?” she asked.

The Washington State Department of Transportation (WSDOT) must complete the feasibility study and have it delivered to Inslee and the state Senate and House transportation committees by December 15.

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