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WA Democrats ask Buttigieg for $200M to plan Canada-Seattle-Portland bullet train

By Mike Lindblom, The Seattle Times
Published: August 15, 2023, 7:52am

In hopes to deliver 250 mph rail service by midcentury, the Democrats in Washington’s congressional delegation are asking the federal government for $198 million to help plan a route between Vancouver, B.C.; Seattle; and Portland.

The Cascadia high-speed corridor would be faster than any trains that currently operate in the United States, though contractors are now building a starter bullet-train line in central California.

Washington state’s eight Democratic representatives, and both senators, signed the funding request to federal Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg in a letter dated Tuesday. Grants would be drawn from President Joe Biden’s $2 trillion infrastructure program, passed by Congress in 2021, which contains $66 billion for railways.

The Washington state Legislature already designated $50 million through 2025 to match federal contributions, plus a $100 million future state share.

The trains could travel between Seattle and either Vancouver, B.C., or Portland within an hour, or 15 minutes to Seattle from Tacoma or Everett, said a statement by U.S. Rep. Suzan DelBene, of Medina. (Washington state’s two GOP House members are east of the Cascade mountains, away from the proposed high-speed corridor.)

A 2019 state-commissioned study also named Surrey, B.C.; Bellingham; Bellevue/Redmond; Tukwila; Olympia; and Kelso/Longview as prospective station sites.

The letter predicts the region of 9 million people will add another 3 million to 4 million by 2050. “Providing a fast and efficient transportation system would allow people to live in less densely populated areas and work anywhere in the megaregion,” it said.

The 290-mile distance is considered ideal by rail advocates to supplant short airline flights and clogged highway trips, like Japanese, French and Spanish trains.

“The idea is to create an entirely new corridor with separate tracks that are not part of the Amtrak or BNSF system,” said Janet Matkin, rail spokesperson for the Washington State Department of Transportation. That would likely be some combination of surface, tunnel and elevated tracks, she said.

So far, proponents haven’t clearly explained where to place dedicated tracks so they’re apart from other trains, motor vehicles and people, allowing 250 mph travel. That’s what a $348 million planning investment is for.

“If awarded, these grants will fund planning work over the next 2-5 years and allow for an informed decision about whether the [Cascadia Rail] Project should proceed into further project development,” said a June update by WSDOT.

A previous state report speculated that construction may cost $42 billion in 2017 dollars. That sum should be considered low until proven otherwise, in light of the 0% engineering; the soaring costs for California’s high-speed rail program, whose ultimate San Francisco-Los Angeles network could reach $128 billion; and process delays in Seattle’s own Sound Transit 3, whose $11 billion Ballard-Sodo light-rail segment won’t complete preliminary engineering until 2026, a full decade after voters approved higher taxes.

The study would provide technical and advisory details, but not achieve an environmental-impact statement and engineering designs.

An independent legislative review in June said construction inflation alone pushed the Cascadia estimate to $63 billion in 2023 dollars.

One expensive factor is that rapid trains can’t realistically share surface corridor with legacy BNSF Railway tracks, like Amtrak and Sounder trains do now, slowed by safety needs and freight traffic, said Charles Prestrud, transportation analyst for the conservative Washington Policy Center.

“The problem with the high-speed rail proposal is if they decide to go with some kind of blended rail, that runs on existing tracks, they don’t have a high-speed rail system,” Prestrud said.

A system exceeding 200 mph would require 80 to 90 miles of tunnel at $450 million per mile construction cost, a far greater outlay than proponent reports said, according to the Legislature’s review.

WSDOT-sponsored reports recommend multiple funding sources, to include Oregon and British Columbia. Those might be property tax districts, carbon fees, “congestion pricing” road tolls, private investments or “value capture” where the high-speed rail authority collects taxes, fees or rents based on rising land values or developer profits near stations.

To add regional mobility, Prestrud suggests improving Interstate 5 through targeted fixes and lane additions outside constrained Seattle. “That’s the kind of problem solving that is needed,” he wrote in June, “as opposed to public outreach that is cheerleading for the kind of gee-whiz bullet train that has become a costly boondoggle in California.”

Washington state Transportation Secretary Roger Millar, in supporting high-speed rail, has emphasized that a widening of I-5 for motor vehicle capacity by one lane each direction would require $108 billion, which exceeds the high-speed rail estimates.

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As Seattle-Tacoma International Airport outgrows its land, citizen advocates for fast trains say they’re smarter and greener for regional trips, compared with clearing trees or farms to build an additional airport nobody wants in their community.

The project could generate 38,000 construction jobs and 3,000 jobs for maintenance and operations, official reports say.

Other regions are working on high-speed rail programs:

  • Andy Byford, the renowned “Train Daddy” who directed subway improvements as a transit executive in London, Toronto and New York City, was hired by Amtrak in March as a national high-speed rail executive.
  • Texas Central Partners and Amtrak last week announced a partnership to analyze a 240-mile line from Dallas to Houston.
  • Crews in five California counties are building the 119-mile Central Valley initial segment encompassing Fresno, where project officials predict train testing in 2028.
  • Amtrak is improving its Northeast Corridor so Acela trains can go 125 mph between Baltimore and Washington, D.C., to complement 150 mph trackway farther north.
  • Brightline West is proposing a 186 mph line from Las Vegas to Rancho Cucamonga, Calif., east of Los Angeles, with private and public money. The company will soon open a 125 mph extension serving Orlando, Fla.
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