New WPC study challenges Cascadia high-speed rail feasibility

New WPC study challenges Cascadia high-speed rail feasibility
A new study by the Washington Policy Center argues that the business analysis made for a Cascadia high-speed rail line is riddled with technical errors and overstates its case. Photo: freepik.com

Proponents of a proposed public-private partnership (P3) Cascadia high-speed rail line from Vancouver, B.C. to Portland, Ore. contend that the project could improve regional economic ties and accommodate the growing population. Much of their argument is articulated in a business analysis released by the Washington State Department of Transportation (WSDOT) last year.

At the time, some critics claimed that the analysis and a prior feasibility study did not take into account actual rail projects that failed to deliver as promised. Now, a new study by Thomas A. Rubin on behalf of the Washington Policy Center (WPC) is bringing to light numerous technical errors in the WSDOT business analysis, also pointing out similar high-speed rail projects that have floundered. Rubin has more than four decades of experience in the transit industry and has served more than 100 transit organizations.

The idea of a “bullet train” was raised during the 2017 legislative session; after a feasibility study was conducted, the legislature funded the WSDOT business analysis. Yet Rubin said that “this report is just not usable for any kind of decision making,” during his remarks at an Oct. 27 virtual summit hosted by WPC to discuss the topic.

That said, the concept of a regional high-speed rail line remains popular among many Washington state and county politicians and officials. A 2019 Cascadia Rail Summit featured speakers including Governor Jay Inslee, former Governor Christine Gregoire, State Sen. Marko Liias (D-21), WSDOT Secretary Roger Millar, King County Executive Dow Constantine and State House Transportation Committee Chair Jake Fey (D-27). The idea has also drawn interest and support among major state business advocacy groups such as Washington Roundtable.

Among the Cascadia Rail Summit sponsors is WSP, the consulting firm contracted for the Cascadia high-speed rail business analysis. According to WSP’s website, the firm promotes high-speed rail as “a leader in the creation of HSR (high-speed rail) networks worldwide” and it is also involved in Sound Transit’s light rail projects.

“They frankly are in the business of doing whatever is necessary to get big, large projects approved and underway so they can get major contracts,” Rubin said. His recommendation? “This work has to be done by someone who is independent.”

WSP has also been contracted to do work for the California High-Speed Rail corridor – a project that has suffered enormous cost overruns, construction and timeline delays, as well as changes to its route. Earlier this year, WSP announced it was hiring an outside firm to investigate alleged retaliation against employees who revealed negative information about the project; the U.S. Department of Transportation’s Inspector General is also investigating the rail project.

A 2017 WSDOT estimate put the Cascadia line total cost between $24-40 billion, yet the WSDOT business analysis claimed the line could move three million passengers annually and eventually generate $250 million in revenue. However, Rubin says that it is the “same technology with the same promises” as the California high-speed rail, which was originally intended to open in 2008 but is now tentatively scheduled for 2028. That entire line was estimated to cost $45 billion, which now turns out to be the cost of only one segment; the total project cost estimate is now unknown. And like the Cascadia line, the California high-speed rail was originally pitched as a P3 project, but no private funding materialized.

Rubin is also skeptical of the Cascadia line travel time claims, noting that the business analysis offers two separate travel times from Vancouver, B.C. to Portland – two hours, and two hours and forty five minutes, respectively. Also, it does not provide specifics on the route or how it would be able to maintain a 220 mile-per-hour speed through existing urban areas. And that lack of route detail leads to his further skepticism regarding predicted ridership figures.

While further exploration of a high-speed rail line may occur in the 2021 legislative session, Rubin said that the COVID-19 response has proven there’s “a hell of a lot of connectivity without ever leaving your bedroom at home.” With a possibility of increased remote working or employees staying home after the pandemic, he sees that the shift could have significant implications for transportation policy.

“Now that it’s happened, let’s consider it,” he said.

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

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