Imagine zipping from Seattle to Vancouver, B.C., in under an hour. No flight is necessary — your ride is a 250 mph train. In 2023 America, that vision sounds far-fetched or, at best, far off. Yet in the face of relentless growth in the Pacific Northwest, rail remains an option worth careful consideration.
Clogged roadways and congested skies are prolonging commutes and delaying travel. It will only get worse. Three million more people are expected to move to Greater Seattle, Portland and Vancouver, B.C., in the next 30 years, according to a report released this year by the Washington State Department of Transportation. There are already more than 9 million combined in those metropolitan areas.
Any solution will come at a hefty price. State officials estimate adding an additional Interstate 5 lane through the state would cost $108 billion, according to a 2019 WSDOT study. By contrast, Roger Millar, WSDOT’s secretary, suggests a Cascadia high-speed train would cost $50 billion.
Former Washington Gov. Chris Gregoire has been meeting elected leaders along the corridor, pitching this new vision as CEO of Challenge Seattle, a consortium of the region’s business leaders. With backing from Democratic members of Washington’s congressional delegation, the state has applied for about $200 million in funds from the Federal Railroad Administration that could evaluate the possibilities of electric high-speed rail.
Skeptics of America’s attempts at high-speed rail point to an ongoing California effort to connect the San Francisco Bay Area and Southern California — a project whose runaway costs have grown from $33 billion to $128 billion.
Frequent delays on Amtrak’s existing Cascades service between Eugene, Ore., and British Columbia haven’t been helpful in growing rail travel. That’s part of the drawback of traveling on tracks owned by BNSF Railway and Union Pacific, which prioritize them for hauling freight.
But there are successes that inspire hope in a rail travel resurgence in the U.S. Brightline, a private company, launched the first private passenger rail in a century between Miami and Orlando, Fla., with 125 mph trains making the trip.
Washington could also pursue other useful initiatives with the grant funding. The governments of two states and a Canadian province must be lock-step to plan and construct such a system. Gathering a coalition focusing on a largely decarbonized way to travel between the economic engines of three Pacific Northwest cities is a worthwhile endeavor.
The Legislature already voted to pony up $150 million to match the potential federal funds. Whether Washington should bite the high-speed bullet and pursue passenger rail for the Pacific Northwest remains to be seen. But it’s a no-brainer to take the $200 million and get real about the possibilities.