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$1M slated to study high-speed rail

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Growth demands it. Costs may kill it. Tech may supplant it.

Joe Wolf

Seattle and Vancouver, B. C., two cities with similar geography and culture, and two cities that are growing towards each other like so many other city pairs around the world. Between 2000 and 2040, Seattle will have seen at least 30 percent growth and Vancouver will have seen 50 percent. Why not connect them?

They’re already connected thanks to I-5, conventional trains, short hops in planes, and a few ferries. The options each lack either speed or capacity. High-speed rail lines seem to happen everywhere else in the world, so they are feasible. At the Emerging Cascadia Innovation Corridor Conference the idea of a bullet train was reinvigorated, this time with money behind it. Governor Jay Inslee set aside one million dollars to begin studying the idea.

The most obvious benefit is cutting a 2.5 hour drive down to less than a one hour train ride. If it works between those two main cities, see if it can extend down to Portland and possibly beyond. The west coast becomes more connected and mutually supportive regardless of borders.

The list of problems is enough to overwhelm any pessimist.

Geography and land use work against it. The very population corridor the train is supposed to serve is constrained by water to the west, mountains to the east, and down the middle is a series of lakes, wetlands, cities, suburbs, and farms. Snaking a new traffic lane through the maze is tough enough. Acquiring a continuous strip of straight, level, stable land becomes much more difficult.

Bullet trains and their rails aren’t cheap. The low-end estimate is $125 million per mile. The high-end hits that magical billion dollar mark. Multiply by 140 miles and budgets start at $17.5 billion. That’s a lot for a population that may grow to ten million. That’s small relative to Seattle’s GDP of $300B and Vancouver’s $110B. Big numbers spawn big debates because there are big benefits and big risks.

While studies are studied and plans are planned, technology advances. Autonomous autos, driverless cars and buses, could happen sooner, as was advocated by Madrona Venture Group. Open the HOV lanes to them and the added cost is minimal. They’d be slower, but they’d allow passengers (except for one alert driver, of course) to relax or get work done while sharing the ride. They also have the advantage of being point-to-point, less need for expensive terminals.

One high-speed rail link may be attractive, and may yet be worth the money. The greater benefit may be from connecting other cities, possibly with Seattle as a hub: Vancouver, B. C., Portland (as well as our Vancouver), spurs into Everett and Tacoma, and maybe even crossing the mountains to Spokane. Imagine that, Spokane and Seattle acting as if they were in the same neighborhood. One link between two cities could be the start of a new identity for a region whose cities are already getting closer to each other.