High speed train called the Class 395 "Javelin" operated by Southeastern at Ebbsfleet International. Photo by Sunil060902, Wikipedia Commons

One way or another, high-speed rail looks poised to get a deeper study in Washington state. On Wednesday, transportation committees of the Washington State Legislature convened to consider competing supplemental transportation budgets. Both budget proposals contained provisos to continue studying the topic in the state in addition to segments extending into Oregon and British Columbia. The proposals, however, differed from a request submitted by Governor Jay Inslee (D-Washington) in January.

The governor’s initial proposal sought $3.6 million in state funding to complete a detailed business case analysis of high-speed rail, building up the work from a study released in December by the Washington State Department of Transportation (WSDOT) that found it to be viable. The analysis under the governor’s proposal would be conducted over the next year and a half requiring WSDOT to consider three corridor variations between Vancouver, British Columbia, Seattle, and Portland, Oregon. The proposal also sought to conduct market analysis of potential riders by area served and evaluate a variety of relevant factors (e.g., service levels, operational model, equipment needs, ridership, comparative market analysis, public-private partnership scenarios, and financing and fares).

Transportation committees in the upper and lower chambers of the legislature approved different approaches to conducting the business case analysis and contain much smaller funding amounts than the governor’s proposal.

House Version Ponies Up $900,000

The House version would create a $1.2 million cap on the study with $900,000 in guaranteed state funding and authorizing an additional $300,000 through a private or local match. This was $300,000 more in guaranteed funding than an earlier draft of the bill. Required analysis in the business case analysis would be less prescriptive than outlined in the initial proposal. Ideally, however, it will seek to answer many of the same issues that the governor’s request identified.

The House bill would establish an advisory group to guide the business case analysis. Varied stakeholders from state agencies and relevant representatives from local communities and the private sector in Washington, Oregon, and British Columbia, in addition to several state legislators, would also be appointed to the advisory group. A final report and findings would need to be provided by June 30, 2019.

“We’re putting together some money from the state and authorizing some money from the private sector to go forward,” said Representative Judy Clibborn (D-Mercer Island), chair of the House Transportation Committee, prior to the vote. Representative Ed Orcutt (R-Kalama), ranking member on the committee, expressed support for the advisory group working on the business case analysis, but was concerned over funding for the study. He said hoped to work out the issue prior to a floor vote.

The House proposing to fund with the local match $1.2 million or one third of the $3.6 million Governor Inslee requested seemingly invites Oregon and British Columbia to each contribute their own $1.2 million to reach the full amount. Whether or not Oregon and British Columbia would be interested in co-funding the business case study remains to be seen.

Senate Version Authorizes Full Study But Doesn’t Provide the $3.6 Million

The Senate version is markedly different, including other interesting studies of interest to rail advocates. In line with the Democratic effort to curb carbon emissions, a workgroup would be created from railroad operators and other experts to investigate the viability of electrification on mainline railways across the state; a report for this would be due by June 30, 2019. A study for passenger rail service to Eastern Washington communities would be funded to the tune of $250,000 and completed January 15, 2019. The proviso specifically identifies Stampede Pass as the study corridor and evaluate, at minimum, service to Auburn, Cle Elum, Ellensburg, Yakima, Toppenish, and the Tri-Cities. The Senate bill further offers funding for a consultant-led high-speed rail business case analysis up to $3.6 million. However, the funding would have to come from local–not state–sources, which is something Senator Marko Liias (D-Edmonds) sought to address.

Senator Liias had proposed an amendment to the Senate bill, which was somewhat similar to the House version, offering $900,000 in guaranteed state funding. That was also the total funding cap on the study, however, with no option for an increase under a local or private match. He pulled the amendment given its differences with the House version.

“I think the issue of investing in high-speed rail is really critically important to the region, to our competitiveness,” Senator Liias said. “The House and the Senate budget proposals don’t totally align yet on this, so I wanted to offer some language, particularly on a task force so that as [the chair] work[s] with our counterparts in the other chamber that [the chair] could consider that, but recognizing that this is still a work-in-progress.”

Senator Steve Hobbs (D-Lake Stevens) said that he was committed to coming up with a solution once the House and Senate look to reconcile bill differences.

Cascadia Rail Applauds the Progress

The bills represent legislative progress on the issue of high-speed rail with both chambers committing to some level of funding. Paige Malott, vice president for the multi-state, bi-national grassroots organization Cascadia Rail, praised the votes to move forward.

“We have deep appreciation for Representative Clibborn and Senator Liias having a bold vision for the future and proposing funding increases for this critical study,” Malott said. “High-speed rail connects our state, provides for greater shared prosperity, and keeps people from spending hours upon hours stuck in traffic on trips that could take just minutes.”

Higher levels of funding, however, would ensure that a more complete picture is provided on how high-speed rail might work in the Cascadia megaregion, which has been identified as a strong candidate for high-speed rail in national studies. Cascadia Rail remains concerned whether a partially funded study would be “investment grade” and provide enough information to gauge private investor interest and initiate scoping under the State Environmental Policy Act and National Environmental Policy Act, Malott said.

Advocates will want to remain active as the bills move ahead in the legislative process. Cascadia Rail has been running a letter writing campaign to contact state legislators to voice support for fully funding the business case study and produced a web form which only takes a few moments to complete.

The featured image is by Sunil060902 and used via Creative Commons. It shows a Class 395 “Javelin” high-speed train operated by Southeastern at Ebbsfleet International.

Map of the Week: Cascadia Rail

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Stephen is a professional urban planner in Puget Sound with a passion for sustainable, livable, and diverse cities. He is especially interested in how policies, regulations, and programs can promote positive outcomes for communities. With stints in great cities like Bellingham and Cork, Stephen currently lives in Seattle. He primarily covers land use and transportation issues and has been with The Urbanist since 2014.