Avoiding a misfire with Cascadia bullet train

Avoiding a misfire with Cascadia bullet train
The state legislature has approved $1.2 million toward a new business analysis of a bullet train line from British Columbia to Seattle and Portland. Photo: flickr.com/photos/[email protected]/

Proponents of an ultra-high-speed rail line between British Columbia, Seattle and Oregon recently achieved another necessary step toward realizing that vision, while recent nightmare scenarios with bullet trains in other parts of the country may offer useful warnings on how not to repeat a similar mistake.

In its 2018 supplemental budget, the Washington State legislature approved a $1.2 million “business case analysis” as a follow-up to the Washington State Department of Transportation’s (WSDOT) 2017 feasibility study partially funded by private stakeholders; British Columbia is also contributing $300,000 to the new study.

The new business case analysis will include:

  • Cost and benefits of a bullet train
  • An update to a 1991 WSDOT rail study
  • An examination of a line between Vancouver, British Columbia and Portland that identifies station locations in Bellingham, Everett, Seattle, SeaTac, Tacoma, Olympia, and Vancouver, Washington;
  • A potential Eastern Washington link, as well as connecting with a similar bullet train line in California.

The 2017 feasibility study estimated cost of the project to be between $24-40 billion – that high-end estimate was the same initial cost estimated for a California high speed rail line approved by voters in 2008 and intended to ultimately connect Los Angeles with San Francisco.

However, the cost estimate for the project eventually went up to $64 billion, and now state officials say it’s up to $77 billion.

When it’s finally finished, it also won’t run at the speed of a “bullet train” which travels at 250 miles per hour or more.

In a blog post for Reason Magazine, Christian Britschgi writes that when it was first proposed, the California high speed rail line was “supposed to zoom between San Francisco and Los Angeles in less than three hours on its own track. Now the project is making use of existing rail lines, meaning that when complete it will putter along at largely conventional speeds. The stark contrast between the promises and reality of California’s rail project—which just last month announced a “worst-case scenario” $2.8 billion cost overrun—should serve as a cautionary tale for advocates of high-speed rail.”

An even larger fiscal fiasco occurred in China with a bullet train system of 12,500 miles that has left the company running it half a trillion in debt.

Yet, comparisons between bullet train projects can be problematic, because they vary in length, geographical location, speed, and funding method.

California’s public project is paid for by bonds approved in 2008 by voters, but also federal stimulus money and state cap-and-trade revenue. In contrast, Texas Central is planning to build a 240-mile bullet train between Houston and Dallas/Fort Worth funded through private investors, though some federal loan programs have been considered.

The Cascadia bullet train has been pitched as a possible public-private partnership (PP3), evidenced by the numerous private stakeholders such as Microsoft and Washington Roundtable. The new study might also lower that cost estimate, as well as potentially offer different funding options.

Texas Central makes their business case based on the findings of a ridership study that concluded:

  • More than 90 percent of North Texas or Houston residents would save about an hour or more by taking the train;
  • Over 80 percent of 2,000 residents surveyed would “consider using the bullet train.”
  • Almost five million passengers are expected to use the train annually by 2026.

Washington’s comparative figures all depend on which route and train speed option is chosen. One scenario outlined in the 2017 feasibility study could potentially provide 1.7-2.1 million annual trips and pay for its own maintenance and costs by 2035. Another potential design with four major stations (Vancouver, Seattle, Tacoma and Portland) could provide 2.8-3.2 million annual trips.

WSDOT Communications Manager Janet Matkin told Lens that the new study will look at “what went right and what went wrong” with the California and Texas projects “and come up with some sort of a proposal that would take the best and put it forth in ours. We want to take those lessons learned and apply them.”

The 2017 feasibility study noted that right of way acquisition was needed for each of the three designs. Texas Central’s approach is to use existing rights of way as much as possible to avoid impacts to private property. Matkin says the upcoming WSDOT analysis will explore tunneling or elevated platforms.

However, critics say funding a bullet train would divert money away from more effective ways to address regional traffic concerns. In an email to Lens, Washington Policy Center Transportation Director Mariya Frost wrote that “building high speed rail will have a very high public cost and will provide very little public benefit, if any, as far as our actual mobility needs. The state should focus on improving highways and providing the public with congestion relief.”

Frost adds that if a PP3 is good enough for a bullet train, it should be also used elsewhere in transportation infrastructure. They were permitted starting in 1993, but in 2005 the legislature passed the Transportation Innovations Partnerships Act requiring debt be issued by the state treasurer and prohibiting unsolicited proposals.

“The bill’s title indicated intent to attract private capital for highway projects, but the text of the law has had the opposite result,” Frost wrote. “Amending the restrictive 2005 law would attract private investment to public projects, get badly needed projects built, and protect taxpayers from higher taxes and bailouts.”

WSDOT will present the new analysis to Governor Jay Inslee and the two transportation committee chairs by June 30, 2019.

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