Ultra-high-speed rail: Silver bullet or pipe dream?

Ultra-high-speed rail: Silver bullet or pipe dream?
A new business case analysis says an ultra-high-speed rail line from Portland through Seattle to Vancouver, B.C. can be “among the most effective transportation investment solutions,” yet some detractors says it’s a pipe dream. Photo: freepik.com

The Washington State Department of Transportation has released its business case analysis regarding the concept of an ultra-high-speed rail line from Portland through Seattle to Vancouver, B.C. Although the analysis touts the proposal as an effective means of transportation that can stimulate economic growth in the region, critics say it ignores any lessons learned from a similar high-speed rail project in California.

According to the analysis, the high-speed-rail line could move 3 million passengers annually, more than what was originally estimated in a 2017 feasibility study. The rail line would also generate $165 million in revenue after the first several years and then later exceed $250 million.

The analysis estimates that construction of the rail line could create up to 160,000 permanent new jobs and generate up to $355 billion in new economic activity. For proponents, the rail line could also help improve congestion and housing costs by allowing people to live much farther away from where they work and taking cars off the road. The overall concept has drawn support from certain private sector groups, including Microsoft, the Association of Washington Cities and Washington Roundtable.

However, former state representative for District 44 and research fellow for the Washington Policy Center Mark Harmsworth told Lens that similar promises were made and then broken with the California high-speed rail line that first started construction in 2008. The original project was meant to extend 520 miles from Los Angeles to San Francisco, with trains operating at around 220 miles per hour. The project was expected to cost roughly $32 billion and be finished in 2033.

According to the LA Times, the California rail project is now $44 billion over budget and 13 years behind schedule. Not only has the line been shortened, but they’re also contemplating the use of diesel trains, instead. In May, the Federal Railroad Administration (FRA) yanked a $929 million grant made to California in 2010 for the rail line.

The business case analysis contemplates some form of public-private partnership. Microsoft and other companies contributed $60,000 to the 2017 feasibility study. However, Harmsworth said “I don’t think that Washington state has really taken that lesson (from California) to heart yet.”

He also questions the capital costs to build the line, estimated to be $24-42 billion. “It’s going to cost $54 billion to get a line from Seattle to Everett. I think it’s a pipe dream, basically. It’s going to cost hundreds and hundreds of billions of dollars for something they’re trying to justify will create jobs in the region, (but) nobody is going to live in Portland and commute to Seattle.”

However, the analysis reiterates arguments in favor of the rail line by supporters. While some transportation analysts favor expanded road capacity to address congestion, WSDOT Secretary Roger Millar has previously claimed it would cost $108 billion to add a lane in each direction of Interstate 5. Although Kenmore Air is offering flights from Seattle to Vancouver, B.C., the analysis claims it is unlikely there will be sufficient capacity at regional airports to support anticipated demand. It also concluded that a high-speed-rail with stops at Surrey, Bellingham, Everett, Tacoma, Olympia and Kelso/Longview – “almost completely captures” regional air travel. Expansions and improvements are planned for the Amtrak line, but it is still restricted due to shared rail line use with freight.

Yet, Harmsworth says it would be “far more economical to put more flights out of Paine Field. The cost of doing that is significantly cheaper and can be borne by a private company that is looking to make money.” He added the project will inevitably require “a massive amount of debt if they don’t go down the route of a public-private partnership. The taxpayers of Puget Sound…are feeling the pinch already.”

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