British Columbia

Washington officials lay out case for 'game-changing' bullet train linking Vancouver, Seattle, Portland

After bemoaning that the state's highways, bridges, ferries and rail cars "are on a glide path to failure," Washington Department of Transportation Secretary Roger Millar laid out the case for building an ultra-high-speed railway on dedicated track.

$50B rail investment would be half the cost of adding lanes to I-5 highway, transportation secretary says

High-speed trains are in operation around the world, including this train, made by Swiss company Stadler. (Cascadia High Speed Rail)

A vote in Washington state last week to roll back car registration fees has scrambled transportation budgets — but Pacific Northwest rail advocates are undeterred in pursuing their vision of a bullet train connection between Portland, Seattle and Vancouver.

Microsoft hosted a high-power meeting of state policymakers, train manufacturers and rail supporters at the software giant's headquarters Thursday in conjunction with the U.S. High Speed Rail Association.

At the Cascadia Rail Summit, enthusiasm to build a bullet train capable of going from Seattle to Portland — or to Vancouver — in one hour rubbed against an anti-tax message from the passage of Washington Initiative 976.

After bemoaning that the state's highways, bridges, ferries and rail cars "are on a glide path to failure," Washington Department of Transportation Secretary Roger Millar laid out the case for building an ultra-high-speed railway on dedicated track.

"As we regroup here in Washington state and think about investing $50 billion [US] in ultra-high-speed rail," Millar said, "Do you think we'll ever get to a place where highway expansion keeps up with economic expansion and population? It will not happen. It cannot happen."

Millar estimated a cost of about $108 billion US to add one additional lane to Interstate 5 in each direction from the Oregon border to the Canadian border.

"$108 billion and we've got another lane of pavement in each direction and it still takes you all day to get from Portland to Vancouver," he told the audience. "Half of that invested in ultra-high speed rail and it's two hours. That's game-changing stuff."

Washington Gov. Jay Inslee added his endorsement of high-speed rail in a video-taped message played at the conference. Democratic state Sen. Marko Liias, who was in attendance, said he doesn't see the anti-tax mood of the electorate as a setback.

"We're going to rely on new tools like public-private partnerships, interjurisdictional co-operation with the B.C. government — maybe with the Canadian federal government," Liias said in an interview. "We'll clearly need federal partners here in the U.S."

CascadiaRail, an advocacy group for a high speed rail line between Vancouver, Seattle and Portland, says the infrastructure would be good for businesses, tourism and quality of life in the region. The concept map pictured includes a spur to Spokane, Wash. (CascadiaRail)

Oregon, Washington, British Columbia and Microsoft are currently co-operating on a study of governance and funding options. That study follows up on a business case analysis delivered this summer, which judged the project as viable and conservatively estimated ridership of at least 1.7 million passengers per year.

Neither the states nor the province are committed to actually building a high-speed train at this point. The vision painted by the feasibility studies entails trains travelling at speeds up to 400 km/h on a newly acquired right-of-way that features extensive tunneling and elevated trackway.

Car tabs will not work to pay for it, quipped a strategic consultant during a panel discussion. Lots of other financing ideas were tossed out Thursday including revenue sharing from a possible carbon tax, congestion pricing, business partnerships or special property tax assessments on development around future stations.

"This is going to be a huge lift," Democratic state Rep. Jake Fey, the chair of the House Transportation Committee, told the conference audience.

The ranking Republican on Fey's committee, state Rep. Andrew Barkis, suggested investing in upgrades to the existing regional Amtrak service to achieve higher speeds and frequency.

"In the short- and medium-term, prioritize Amtrak Cascades at a fraction of the cost and get similar results," Barkis said in an interview.

The current Amtrak Cascades service maxes out at 127 km/h and runs on tracks owned and heavily used by freight railroads.

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