High speed train models like this were on display at the Cascadia Rail Summit. (Credit: Doug Trumm)
High speed train models like this (a Renfe set by Talgo) were on display at the Cascadia Rail Summit. (Credit: Doug Trumm)

Early this month, a group of more than 100 rail industry professionals and local politicians met on the Microsoft campus to discuss the future of high-speed rail in the Northwest.

I attended the conference as an interested free agent. As a local organizer working on land use issues in Ballard and Interbay, I have a vested interest in figuring out where high-speed rail (HSR) is going to go through Seattle. It physically cannot run the same route as the current Amtrak and Sounder trains going through Interbay and up the coast to Edmonds. The terrain and curving track simply do not allow for high speeds. The sooner we settle this, the sooner we can get a bigger picture to the rail and industrial development potential throughout all of Seattle.

So my perspective was really as a cheerleader for high-speed rail, and more importantly for an aggressive timeline. Let’s get this settled, people.

I went into the meeting thinking it was going to be a lot like other professional workgroups or conference. Session, coffee, plenary, lunch, keynote, end session, cocktail hour. But this summit managed to surprise me. It was not about advances in research or best practices in governance. It was light on locations and heavy on potential. Instead of the details of HSR, there was a lot about feasibility of HSR as a technology and the Northwest as a location. The local elected officials were selling the region. The consultants were selling the potential of the train. It was a hundred person Tinder date.

The bulk of the summit happened on Thursday, November 7th. It was the talkathon sandwiched between Wednesday’s happy hour networking event and Friday’s Link station tours. 

All day Thursday, courses of speakers took to the front of the Microsoft conference center. Welcome messages from the Governor (by video) and Roger Miller, the head of Washington Department of Transportation (WSDOT). Senator Liias of Edmonds, King County Executive Constantine, President Mullin of the Roundtable, and Mayor Marchione of Redmond offered their pitches on why this region is salivating for high-speed rail.

Then it was the turn for major interests in rail to take the stage. An important map came up in several presentations. It presented a New Map of France, based on the time from Paris. Instead of the well known hexagon stretching from the Atlantic to the Mediterranean, the map was globular, with famous coastal cities pulled towards the capital. In terms of hours on the train, France is much smaller and it is changing the country in important ways. Perhaps we will not just have a Bordeaux for lunch, we shall enjoy repas in Bordeaux, one imagines a Parisian saying. 

Such things are silly for the Northwest, where we don’t put the same importance on the midday meal. That’s also why we were back to the politicians for lunch. Former Governor Chris Gregoire talked Cascadia regionalism while we munched on tiny roast beef or salmon sandwiches with a side of cookies and Doritos. No wine was served. 

But Gregoire’s message was one of similar changes to the functional map of the area. Let’s go to Vancouver to see a hockey game. Let’s get to Portland to connect with businesses and universities. Let’s spread the housing market to a more regional–and affordable–model. 

The afternoon featured another round from development interests. This time we met researchers and architects designing the places where rail meets the ground. Yes, high-speed rail will change the region. It’s our choice to make it work. For most automobile transportation, we have to turn our back to the biggest intersections and highways. They are loud and polluting scars on the land. Transit stations allow us to create livable centers in our communities. Transit-oriented development not only saves cities, but lets them grow better.

The day ended with two rounds to the local officials. Surveys from HSR advocates looked at funding options. Approaches were presented, some involving slower but more affordable construction. Others improved segments of existing rail, showing that incremental approaches are workable. But to get these messages out, advocates need to appreciate the ways that these projects impact daily lives and be honest about those impacts.

A pertinent question came from Paige Malott of Cascadia Rail. “Who is not here?” she asked. She echoed Alex Hudson of Transportation Choices Coalition who said that when we are talking about something truly spectacular like HSR, we must “be intentional of who it’s for and why we are doing it.” 

Why are we doing this? Not the rail, but this summit. Why are we discussing a technology fifty years behind Japan, billions of dollars behind Europe, and thousands of miles of track behind China? The answer taps into the uniquely American way we build things in the 21st century.

When we built the 19th century rail lines in this country, there was not just engineering marvels at stake. There was also land, stolen from native tribes and parceled out among tens of thousands of homesteaders. As Pa Ingalls called it, homesteading was a bet he could spend five years on the frontier with his $14 at stake against the government’s 160 acres. It was a bet he intended to and did win.

Less noticed in the history books is the bet between the federal government and the train companies. For every block of land that was handed to homesteaders, another block was handed to the rail interests for connecting the country. Some for rail facilities. A lot for real estate speculation and development. This is what paid for American rail. This is Seattle’s history too. Seattle’s White founding fathers offered Northern Pacific 3,000 acres to put the transcontinental rail terminus in Seattle, but the company chose Tacoma instead to have even more control, which set up years of fierce competition between the cities.

We abandoned that model in the 20th century. The government poured money into highways as a measure of national defense. There was still land at stake in the suburbs, but it was for private developers. The infrastructure that carried people to the suburbs was just given, without being tied to need or public benefit. And now we face the enormous cost of keeping this suburban infrastructure working while coming up with more sustainable transportation options for the future. Roger Millar of WSDOT put the figure out that 75% of our transportation budget goes to keeping up highways. There’s not a lot left for anything else.

So without land to develop, without federal defense money, and without a source of state revenue, high-speed rail is ephemeral. There is nothing to bet on its completion besides a better tomorrow. Without those sources of money, HSR is not real.

Without that reality, the players at the summit were talking at, rather than to, each other. The professional services–the engineers, contractors, and operators–are taking a gamble with their time and reputations. These professional companies want to build HSR so that they can build it again and again in different places. Their homesteading play is on their future reputation, and at the moment Cascadia is not a bet they’re willing to take.

The government officials need to be convinced of a different kind of reality. There is a long line of snake oil sales in the history of experimental infrastructure. (See the Simpsons Monorail episode). The professional services are trying to show the politicians that their product is not vaporware and that it fits the needs of the community in the future. Otherwise we end up with a years late, underutilized, multi-billion-dollar tunnel

And that circling made the summit feel like a weird first date. Everyone wants to be impressed with one another. But not too impressed. We don’t want to seem desperate. 

Of course, adding to the awkwardness was the fact that hours before the summit began, the future of transit in this region was dealt a swift blow by the passage of I-976. Tim Eyman’s initiative to slash car tabs gutted the Seattle region’s ability to tax itself for transportation. Every speaker brought it up. In many ways, it was the one place that no one spoke past each other. 

Such directness put into real terms the distance we’ve come from the rail that established the modern Pacific Northwest. Our scope has become shorter and aspirations more limited. 

But that’s not what folks actually want. County Executive Dow Constantine said that Sound Transit 3 (ST3) passed at a time when the country was moving another direction in the 2016 election. He said that ST3 went big because people pushed back on more modest proposals and said “we want more and we want it sooner.”

The question is whether we have anything to place on that wager.

Article Author

Ray Dubicki is a stay-at-home dad and parent-on-call for taking care of general school and neighborhood tasks around Ballard. This lets him see how urbanism works (or doesn’t) during the hours most people are locked in their office. He is an attorney and urbanist by training, with soup-to-nuts planning experience from code enforcement to university development to writing zoning ordinances. He enjoys using PowerPoint, but only because it’s no longer a weekly obligation.