High speed rail talks move ahead

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The long-term effects on transportation in Washington state due to COVID-19 is not yet known, though former governor Christine Gregoire envisions future growth based on a mega-regional model and high-speed rail. Photo: freepik.com

For three years, a coalition of public and private groups has explored the idea of an ultra-high-speed rail corridor from Vancouver, B.C. through Seattle to Portland, Ore. Although the latest report won’t be released until December and the long-term effects on transportation due to COVID-19 is not yet known, former Washington governor and Seattle Challenge CEO Christine Gregoire sees the plan as part of a mega-regional approach to accommodate population growth along with the housing and jobs that could accompany it.

Challenge Seattle was formed in 2015 and includes 19 regional CEOs, with the Cascadia Innovative Corridor one of its four areas of focus; the organization has a public-private partnership (P3) with the Business Council of British Columbia to encourage stronger economic ties within the megaregion – something Gregoire and other Washington-based CEOs argue an ultra-high-speed rail train could accomplish.

The latest data from the Washington State Department of Transportation (WSDOT) shows that state highway traffic is down 13 percent from the same time last year. Boeing CEO Dave Calhoun predicted in late April that it will take up to three years for traffic to return to 2019 levels. Public transit usage has also seen a significant decline due to public health concerns that could have serious implications for future transit projects in the region.

Yet Washington State Transportation Director Mark Hallenbeck told colleagues at the Washington State Transportation Commission’s July 7 meeting that once a COVID-19 vaccine was created: “we’ll go back to what was before.”

At the same time, that would also mean a return to previous congestion levels along with anticipated growth in the state population over the next 20 years. According to Gregoire, the Cascadia region is expected to have an additional 3-4 million people by 2050, but the existing infrastructure will only be able to accommodate 2.3 million.

“Our failure to be able to accommodate projected growth into the future will do nothing but magnify those identified problems,” she said. “We need to think big about what might be a solution to that.”

While other state such as Texas have dealt with growth by building out, geographical constraints along with the state Growth Management Act has made that approach unfeasible. As a result, Gregoire said building up has been “the only viable option.”

One potential benefit offered by an ultra-high-speed rail line is that commuters can live further away from where they work; one bullet train is capable of traveling from Seattle to Vancouver in one hour. A 2017 feasibility study found that a bullet train could provide 1.7-2.1 million annual trips and pay for its own maintenance and costs by 2035. Additional stations would increase ridership numbers.

Gregoire advocated a strategy that increases density within current metro areas while funneling growth into existing moderately-sized cities or creating new municipalities along the Interstate 5 corridor. The bullet train and broadband internet access would serve as connecting links to those population centers.

However, critics have said the approach is less practical than offering short-distance flights like those currently offered by Kenmore Air from Seattle to Victoria, B.C that takes roughly an hour. The 2017 feasibility study put the total cost for a rail line between $24-40 billion, though the actual costs for a similar project in California ran much higher than its initial estimate.

Hallenbeck said if new towns are built around a bullet train line, it’s imperative that they’re built to incentivize walking and biking within the communities but encourage the train to travel elsewhere. He noted that the only transit system that turns a profit is in Hong Kong, because the land use policy “encourages use of the transit. We need to encourage this use.”

With 40 years of planning experience in Washington state, Washington State Transportation Commission Chair Jerry Litt said at the meeting that the megaregional corridor would require a “significant paradigm shift in our state land use laws. He added that the GMA was created on the assumption “that land use came first, (and) transportation followed. What we just heard is we need to build the transportation first and land use can build up around it.”

The report on the proposed Cascadia bullet train’s governance and financing is due Dec. 1.

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