Since 2017, the state has been exploring the idea of an ultra-high-speed rail line from Vancouver, B.C. through Seattle to Portland, Ore to better connect workforce talent and spur economic growth. Last year, the legislature approved a $1.2 million “business case analysis” in response to a Washington State Department of Transportation’s (WSDOT) 2017 feasibility study. Work on? that analysis will continue through June.
Now, Governor Jay Inslee is requesting $3.3 million in his proposed transportation budget (page 56) to develop a new ultra-high-speed transportation authority and conduct further concept study. Its potential benefit to the Pacific Northwest was outlined at a Jan. 30 work session of the House Transportation Committee, but state lawmakers also reiterated ongoing concerns about cost, impact to communities and practicality as other similar projects across the country have faced setbacks.
“I could be a big fan of this rail, but I think there’s a lot of question that I need to have answered,” Rep. Tom Dent (R-13) said.
Washington State Department of Transportation Secretary Roger Millar told panel members that high speed rail “is about much more than transportation. It’s about creating opportunities and connections that’ll carry this mega region into the future.”
Right now, Washington’s Amtrak Cascades trains provide trips to Portland and Vancouver, B.C, but they can only go 79 miles per hour (mph) compared to a 250-mph bullet train. Reducing a train commute to either city to an hour “would be a game-changer,” Millar said.
However, opponents may argue that small airlines could offer the same service with the billions in new infrastructure necessary. Millar argued that it isn’t practical to use international airports such as Sea-Tac for local flights. Yet, emerging green technology could lead to electric airplanes capable of landing on much shorter runways viable for that type of service.
Millar also argued that were WSDOT to add an extra lane on west-bound and east-bound Interstate 5 from Portland to Vancouver, B.C., it would cost $102 billion and “probably take as long.”
“This region competes with other mega regions around the country and around the globe,” he said. “We’re asking that we take this incremental step.”
As part of the new funding request, the new authority would do the following:
- Continue work being done on the current business case analysis;
- Examine government entities involved, contract requirements and legal options; and
- Develop recommendations for further development of the corridor.
A report would also be due to Inslee and the legislature by June 2020 assessing relevant laws in Washington, Oregon and British Columbia that may have to be changed to accommodate the project. According to a WSDOT survey of business travelers, 74 percent said they would “definitely try” a high-speed rail line if it were built.
Among the many questions that remain unanswered, of particular interest to legislators is how much the project will ultimately cost – estimates range between $20-40 billion – and who will pay for what percentage of that price tag. Initially touted as a public-private partnership, WSDOT’s 2017 feasibility study was partially funded by private stakeholders and British Columbia. However, any state funding for the project could face opposition as lawmakers also consider existing infrastructure maintenance, repair and replacement projects.
“It’s exciting to think about it,” Rep. Andrew Barkis (R-2) said. “But it’s also concerning to think about the costs and the unknowns. California (light rail) started in the $30-40 billion, now they’re anywhere from $70-80 billion. That’s very concerning, especially with what we’ve heard recently from WSDOT on the need of that capital money for existing infrastructure just to keep things moving as it is.
Another problem could be justifying the cost to state residents who don’t live near the rail line. Rep. Jim Walsh (R-19) told Millar “what my district lacks that other place have is clear rail and surface channel to its ports. Tell me how I explain to my constituents that we are spending money trying to compete with Brussels and Amsterdam and Singapore, when our ports need more efficient, less obstructed channels to commerce?”
Millar replied that “here in Washington state I quite often get that divisive ‘either/or’ eastside/westside thinking. I truly think we’re interdependent. I’m not suggesting this investment be made in lieu of investments that address the concerns you’re making.”