V150 train, modified TGV, was a conventional world speed record holder at 574.8 km/h or 357.2 mph. (Photo credit: Babskwal)

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?

UHSGT may perform even better, since the methodology and assumptions used in the ridership and revenue projections were conservative. The assumptions in the ridership report do not reflect recent projections of increasing highway congestion across the Cascadia megaregion as well as any real increases in auto or air operating costs. In addition, increased ridership is likely to occur due to improve integration with future connecting services and the potential for additional induced demand resulting from enhanced economic activity arising from investment in UHSGT. Accordingly, if implemented effectively, there is significant potential to attract even more riders to UHSGT.

WSDOT Ultra-High Speed Ground Transportation (UHSGT) Business Case Study

Within the more conservative framework, the analysis still found significant environmental benefits. “Rail travel has historically been one of the most environmentally friendly modes of travel, generating 12 times less carbon dioxide (CO2) emitted than air and 3 to 5 times less than automobiles,” the executive summary states. “Over the first 40 years of operations, UHSGT would avoid release of 6 million metric tons (tonnes) of CO2, as a result of 27 million avoided flight miles and 6.1 billion avoided vehicle miles in the Cascadia megaregion. In addition, every year on average of more than 960 metric tons of harmful non-CO2 pollutants (e.g., particulate matter, carbon monoxide, and nitrogen oxide) would be kept out of the ecosystem.” Moreover, the path to making air travel climate neutral is uncertain and speculative. Large planes are hard to electrify and the way planes interact with clouds and create contrails (regardless of fuel) also has a greenhouse effect.

Aircraft emit a number of compounds that can influence the climate. (Credit: atmosfair)

Another paradigm that sabotages climate action is the desire for quick monetary returns. Cascadia high-speed rail may not run at a profit in its first few years. However, high-speed rail are investments the improve over time unlike urban highways, which induce demand and get congested and are widened all over again in a perpetual cycle of wanton climate-destroying consumption. Once high-speed rail track is laid from Vancouver to Portland and perhaps beyond, the intercity transportation needs in the corridor are met for the foreseeable future. All one has to do is add more trains as demand increases–and of course maintain the track, which again is much cheaper and cleaner than tying to meet the same demand with highway infrastructure or expanding airports.

What governments can do bolster ridership

So what if instead of taking a hands off approach and waltzing toward climate doom, Cascadian governments treated high-speed rail as part of a comprehensive climate action strategy?

As the cost of driving and flying go up, high-speed rail ridership would go up. With some sort of carbon and/or congestion pricing scheme, high speed rail would perform much better. (WSDOT/WSP)

For starters, congestion pricing (or switching respective gas taxes to vehicle miles traveled fees as petroleum is phased out) in each of three major cities would make driving between them less enticing. Car-free downtowns would make being on foot, on bike, or transit more pleasant while discouraging folks from bringing cars on trips. Capping parking in center cities would also have the effect of lowering private automobile trip demand, as would improving rapid transit systems. We could lower fares to boost high-speed rail ridership and displace more trips from more carbon-intensive modes. Governments could also cap the number of flights between the cities on the high-speed rail line to force more trips to rail–if this isn’t already happening naturally. If high-speed rail directly connects Cascadia’s major airports, we could even cut into the share of trips composed by connecting flights.

Based on a demand survey, the analysis projects rail could go from 6% to 22% of trips in the 2040 high-speed rail scenario, as automobiles drop from 64% of trips to 52%. (WSDOT/WSP)

There’s a number of ways to accomplish mode shift toward transit and high-speed rail. The point is that government shouldn’t sit idly by in the midst of our climate crisis. The transportation sector composes the majority of carbon emissions in the Cascadia region–44% in the state of Washington–so we cannot run away from this problem.

The details of the study

The Urbanist will take a closer look at the details of the 400-page analysis in a future article, but, for now, here’s a quick overview.

Scenario 1 has Seattle as a hub station area, but scenarios 2 and 3 replace it with Bellevue-Redmond and Tukwila. (WSDOT/WSP)

The study looked at a range of service options ranging from 21 to 30 roundtrips per day using three difference technologies and a variety of station and express service options. Reassuringly, hyperloop technology–a high speed pod transport system relying on pressurized tubes favored by eccentric billionaire Elon Musk–was painted as experimental, low capacity, and highly unlikely to be chosen. The trade-off of higher operating costs also made Maglev, which relies on powerful magnets to levitate off the track and reduce friction, seem more of a long shot, although it does have the advantage over Hyperloop of existing in the real world.

The study mixed and matched eleven cities as station options: Portland, Kelso, Olympia, Tacoma, Tukwila, Seattle, Bellevue, Everett, Bellingham, Surrey, and Vancouver, B.C. Scenario 1 places a hub in Downtown Seattle while Scenario 2 and 3 put it in Bellevue-Redmond.

Seattle has a staggering advantage when it comes to transit connectivity. (WSDOT/WSP)

Bellevue doesn’t come out too favorably when it comes to ridership or convenience for most travelers.

Downtown Seattle has a sizable advantage when it comes to population and jobs within a three-mile radius, but perhaps not as large as you’d expect. (WSDOT/WSP)
In the highest ridership Scenario 1D, Portland is predicted to be the busiest station, followed closely by Seattle. Tacoma projects to attract nearly as many riders as the Vancouver, BC station. (WSDOT/WSP)

To cut to the chase, the option that performed best on ridership was Scenario 1D, with Seattle as a hub station and service split between express to Portland and Vancouver and local service picking up six additional cities along the way. Of those six cities, Tacoma, which was excluded in several of the other options, performed best.

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Doug Trumm is publisher of The Urbanist. An Urbanist writer since 2015, he dreams of pedestrianizing streets, blanketing the city in bus lanes, and unleashing a mass timber building spree to end the affordable housing shortage and avert our coming climate catastrophe. He graduated from the Evans School of Public Policy and Governance at the University of Washington in 2019. He lives in East Fremont and loves to explore the city on his bike.