On Monday, the Washington State Department of Transportation (WSDOT) released a Ultra-High Speed Ground Transportation Business Case Analysis that shows considerable upside for connecting Portland, Seattle, and Vancouver, British Columbia with trains potentially reaching speeds of 250 miles per hour.
Among the benefits is the potential to forestall future Sea-Tac Airport expansions by shifting a portion of regional trips, which make up 20% of all Sea-Tac air traffic, to rail. Avoiding the need to add another runway could save $10 billion, the study estimates.
The study didn’t reassess the capital costs of connecting Portland to Vancouver corridor with high speed rail; a previous study pegged construction costs at $24 billion to $42 billion. While that is certainly expensive, the Ultra-High Speed Ground Transportation (UHSGT) business case study argues the cost is reasonable in light of the also colossal cost of expanding airport and freeway infrastructure. Adding another I-5 lane in each direction throughout Washington would cost $108 billion, WSDOT estimated last year. Meanwhile, the passenger capacity of rail is considerably larger. “A 2-track UHSGT spine could carry as many as 32,000 people in the peak hour, which would be greater than the existing capacity of the I-5/Highway 99 corridor between Vancouver, BC and Portland, OR,” the study states.
Even with conservative assumptions, WSDOT’s consultant, WSP, found high-speed rail would attract as many as three million annual trips and bring in up to $250 million in annual revenue by 2040 and operating at a profit by 2055. Ridership coming in 10% higher or operating costs 10% lower would mean operating at a profit by 2040. An analysis of wider economic benefit estimated building high-speed rail would support 160,000 additional permanent jobs.
Hemmed in as it is, the region faces a considerable transportation pinch.
“The need for continued additional transportation infrastructure investment in the Cascadia megaregion is clear—crowded roads, congested airports and limited intercity rail service constrain the mobility of residents, businesses, and tourists,” the UHSGT business case states. “Vancouver, BC; Seattle, WA; and Portland, OR, have the fourth, sixth, and tenth-most congested roads in North America, respectively. Airport delays are making air travel increasingly unreliable, and the travel time and frequency of intercity rail service are not competitive for most trips.”
Another area of emphasis was high-speed rail’s ability to alleviate housing affordability issues by putting more neighborhoods within an easy commute of Cascadia’s major job centers. The study advises strategically planning station areas to be dense housing nodes by enacting land use changes to spur transit-oriented development. High-speed rail could well be the impetus for denser land use.
Washington Governor Jay Inslee, who has been a vocal backer of high-speed rail, cheered the findings as yet more momentum for linking the region with world-class rail service.
“My vision for the megaregion—stretching from Washington, north to British Columbia, and south to Oregon—includes a transportation system that is fast, frequent, reliable, and environmentally responsible,” Governor Inslee said in the report’s preface. “Such a system would unite us in our common goals related to economic development, shared resources, affordable housing, new jobs, tourism, multimodal connections, and increased collaboration.”
Critics ignore climate implications
Of course a project this massive also attracts detractors. One of them is Seattle Transit Blog‘s Dan Ryan, a longtime high-speed rail critic who got his hands on an advance copy of the UHSGT Business Case report and panned it. Ryan’s central point is the ridership is just too low to warrant the investment and wouldn’t be enough to affect calculations around widening I-5 or expanding airports.
One thing his critique never mentioned is climate. Therein lies the rub. The problem for studies seeking to justify green infrastructure is they have to use conservative assumptions to be taken seriously, but those same assumptions for how many people drive and fly could well spell climate catastrophe by mid-century. We have to change our habits and that takes government action if we want to get ourselves out of our climate death spiral. The study assumed no additional real costs for air travel or auto travel, meaning Washington state would lurch through the 2040’s and 2050’s with no carbon tax, car or flight quotas, or cap-and-trade scheme in place. Do we think a region that sees itself as a climate leader would carry on this way as a climate catastrophe closes in around it?