Will ultra-high-speed rail concept advance?

Will ultra-high-speed rail concept advance?

Washington state for several years has studied the concept of an ultra-high-speed rail, a.k.a. a “bullet train,” that would run from British Columbia through Washington state down into Oregon. With a final report released last year by the Washington State Department of Transportation (WSDOT), advocates now want additional funding to further develop the idea.

 Stakeholders testifying at a March 22 work session in the House Transportation Committee envision it as the link connecting the megaregion in which future growth can be placed in “hub cities” built on currently undeveloped land. According to estimates, the region is expected to receive 3-4 million more residents by 2050, but at current rates 1.3 million of those people will lack adequate housing.

The Boston Consulting Group report conducted for Challenge Seattle also forecasts that if current trends remain as the population grows, the region will experience worse traffic than Los Angeles by 2035 and worse housing affordability issues than New York City and San Francisco by 2040. 

“The core of the problem comes down to how do we accommodate 3-4 million people the megaregion is expected to get over the next 30 years?” Boston Consulting Group Partner Eric Sparks told the committee. “How can our megaregion serve as a global model for sustainable growth?”

Ultra-high-speed rail supporters such as Challenge Seattle Executive Vice President Mamie Marcuss believe the solution is to better connect major metro areas such as Vancouver, Seattle, and Portland. “Given our shared ethos in the Pacific Northwest and our innovation culture, we think we have a unique opportunity to create a sustainable megaregion.”

While hub cities are a relatively new and untried concept, Marcuss said “whether you like it or hate it, the reality is we need to think proactively about how we plan for this future growth. In our view, high speed transportation would really allow for the first time for housing to be decoupled from job location.”

The proposed bullet train would allow passengers to reach Vancouver, B.C. from Seattle in 47 minutes, and a trip to Portland from Seattle would take only 58 minutes. The proposal would offer between 21-30 daily round trips. Prior studies have estimated that ridership could be between 1.7-3.1 million annually.

The House proposed 2021-23 transportation budget includes two separate appropriations regarding ultra-high-speed rail. The first is allocated for the Joint Transportation Committee to look at ways to improve transportation connectivity within the megaregion, including high speed rail. That report would be due to the legislature by December 2022.

The other appropriation funds a continued analysis of the high-speed rail concept with participation from Oregon and British Columbia. The study would have to develop a long-term funding and financing strategy for its implementation and construction. A report to the governor and the legislature would be due by December.

There are a variety of important logistical challenges that would have to be answered, including existing land-use policy, impacts to nearby private property, and intergovernmental collaboration. However, perhaps the greatest question will be how to pay for it. When it was initially proposed in 2017, it was pitched as a potential public-private partnership with large employers in the megaregion. A recent WSDOT report anticipates both public and private funding for the project.

Yet, the idea has drawn criticism from transportation analysts citing similar projects across the country that ultimately floundered in cost overruns and underperforming service. A 2017 feasibility study estimated the cost of a Cascadia bullet train to be as high as $40 billion, the same price tag estimated for a California high speed rail line approved by voters in 2008 to connect Los Angeles with San Francisco. It’s now estimated to cost $100 billion when finished – and the trains will operate at regular speeds.

Taxpayers may also be reluctant to accept promises made, particularly those in the central Puget Sound Region where voters approved Sound Transit’s ST3 in 2016. One of the largest transportation packages ever, ST3 as currently planned will build out a combination of light rail and bus rapid transit within various Seattle suburbs including Bellevue, Redmond, and Issaquah. Sound Transit has repeatedly reported significant project cost overruns, the most recent a total of $5 billion for a light rail line extension to Ballard and West Seattle.

Some legislators at the March 22 work session also questioned the role of ultra-high-speed rail as Sound Transit continues work rolling out ST3 in cities the bullet train would also service.

“I thought that was what Sound Transit was supposed to be doing,” Rep. Andrew Barkis (R-2) said. “Has that goal changed?”

The House transportation budget is scheduled for a public hearing on March 23 in the House Transportation Committee.

TJ Martinell is a native Washingtonian and award-winning journalist. Born and raised in Bellevue, he’s been involved in the news industry since working at his high school newspaper.

His investigative reporting for various community newspapers in the Puget Sound region has been recognized by the Washington Newspaper Publishers Association and the Society for Professional Journalists.

A graduate of Eastern Washington University, he has a B.A. in journalism and was the news editor of EWU’s student university newspaper.

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