Strong Public Support for Cascadia High-Speed Rail, Poll Finds

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Texas will see high speed trains similar to the Shinkansen once its Dallas to Houston project is completed. (Image credit: Texas Central)

A recent poll completed by FM3 Research found that 67% of Washingtonians support connecting the major cities of the Cascadia region with high-speed rail, along with 60% of Oregonians. Only 27% of respondents across the two states expressed opposition to building high-speed rail, and residents of British Columbia were not included in the poll. The poll was compiled from 1,616 interviews and has a margin of error of 2.5%. High-speed rail advocates are pointing to these strong poll results to rally support at the federal and state levels for bringing high-speed rail to the Pacific Northwest.

The Seattle Metropolitan Chamber of Commerce and Challenge Seattle backed the poll and they posit that high-speed rail is essential to meeting the growing region’s transportation needs. Chamber CEO Rachel Smith signed a letter to Washington’s Congressional delegation along with advocacy groups like Cascadia Rail and The Urbanist that urged funding for high-speed rail and support for the Cascadia corridor proposal in the pending federal infrastructure bill.

“Growth projections for the Cascadia region are startling, with populations expected to increase by more than 30% — or 3-4 million additional people — by 2050. Without additional strategies to accommodate this unprecedented growth, the current challenges in providing affordable housing and managing traffic congestion (and resulting carbon emissions) will get worse,” the coalition letter stated. “The mega-region needs to move quickly to embrace big, bold ideas that will prepare it for the continued growth to come and sustainably preserve the region for future generations.”

Transit’s time is now

The Pacific Northwest shouldn’t be looking back in future decades at yet another missed opportunity in a region that has plenty of infrastructure what-ifs already, Smith said in an interview. From the Bogue Plan to Forward Thrust to Monorail expansion, Seattle has already had plenty of transit plans that fizzled out and that has contributed to our present day mobility woes.

“Highway construction is not going to drive our mobility solutions; transit is, and that’s why I think now is the moment,” Smith said. “We have a long history of looking back at the things we wish we would have done on infrastructure.”

The strong poll results underscored that high-speed rail is seen as a solution for several key priorities, Smith said, as does feedback from business leaders who make up the Chamber. Cascadia Rail Chair Paige Malott agreed.

“Washingtonians and Oregonians are excited and ready for high-speed rail. Cascadians understand the importance of how electrified, fast trains can address large scale issues, such as: improving the environment through reducing air pollution, connecting people to affordable housing, good paying jobs, and improving the economy all while transforming every day commutes to one-third of the travel time you’d typically spend in a car,” Malott said in an email.

“From urban centers to rural communities, voters are ready to get on board with making Cascadia the first sustainable megaregion, where we can spend less time stuck in traffic and more time with the people we love,” Malott added.

Map shows a high speed rail mainline from Vancouver, BC to Eugene, Oregon. Also shows secondary lines serving Spokane, the Tri-Cities, and Yakima in Easter Washington.
Cascadia Rail’s 2019 map. (Oran Viriyincy)

“Transportation is still something people care a lot about, and they see high-speed rail as a solution to traffic and congestion and mobility,” Smith said. “They believe that it is good for the economy and good for addressing climate change, and then we’re seeing strong continued support for solutions at the local, regional, state, and federal levels.”

In addition to asking the Washington’s Congressional delegations to seek funding for Cascadia high-speed rail, the Chamber is also urging the Washington State Legislature to pass a transportation bill as soon as possible, either in a long-rumored special session this fall or in the 2022 session. Smith’s comments underscore that transit should be the focus rather than highway expansion. Under influence from highway champion Senator Steve Hobbs (D-Lake Stevens), who is senate transportation chair, the transportation bills thus far have been highway-focused and climate crisis-denying.

The federal infrastructure bill — and a potential reconciliation bill jobs plan follow up — could provide a significant boost to high-speed rail projects across the country. But the capital investment in tens of billions of dollars for these projects so if Congress skimps it could leave budgets tight and much of the funding left up the states. The projections for jobs and economic benefit are a big selling point for high speed rail and could allow it recuperate the costs.

“This could be part of our economic recovery in this region for many years to come,” Smith said. “Transit is huge economic stimulator. And all those jobs and economic activity is not just white collar jobs. It’s also green jobs, it’s jobs for the trades and union members. It’s jobs for people to make a living wage and bring it home to their families.”

The initial feasibility study and business case analysis for Cascadia’s high speed rail corridor showed strong ridership, revenue projections, an estimated $355 billion in economic growth, and 200,000 new jobs related to construction and ongoing operation, as the coalition letter to Congress noted.

The fact that House transportation chair Peter DeFazio’s district includes Eugene, Oregon (the proposed southern terminus of the line) helps. Representative DeFazio has been vocal about the need to invest in transit more and highways less could aid Cascadia in bargaining for more high-speed rail funding and support. Still, convincing moderate Senators and Representatives to go along could be tough.

“As high-speed rail is a priority for the Biden Administration, we look to our leaders in the Senate and the House to prioritize this game-changing investment for our own future, and the futures of generations to come,” Malott said.

Respondents identified many positive impacts for the region

FM3 Research included at least 100 respondents from each of Washington and Oregon’s Congressional districts in their polling. When asked about issues confronted by the region, a majority indicated climate change (57%), traffic (55%), and deteriorating transportation infrastructure (53%) were all very serious problems.

The poll question gauging support for high-speed rail, which described a project in line with what the Washington State Department of Transportation (WSDOT) has studied, gained high support — which increased further when respondents were asked about specific potential positive impacts of high-speed rail for the region.

Here is some information about a project in the Pacific Northwest that would create a Cascadia high-speed rail system with trains that travel at 250 miles per hour on average.

This would make 1-hour, direct trips between each major city between Vancouver, British Columbia, and Eugene, Oregon — with stops in Seattle, Tacoma, Portland and potentially other cities in between. Stations in each city would be located with easy access to other transit modes and airports.

This proposal would transform our passenger rail network into a faster, more integrated system that provides a safe, efficient, equitable, and affordable means of travel. Funding would come from federal infrastructure investment, as well as state and local transportation funding sources.

Would you support or oppose this high-speed rail project connecting cities in the Northwest?

Polling question for Washington and Oregon voters on a high-speed rail project. (Credit: FM3 Research)

Over 60% of voters felt expressed that high-speed rail would have a positive impact on jobs and the economy, traffic congestion, air quality, and reducing global warming; only slightly less (56%) felt that high-speed rail would have a positive impact on the cost of traveling between cities in the region.

The potential effect of high-speed rail on state budgets did, however, arise as one area of concern, with 57% of respondents sharing that they felt that high-speed rail would have a negative impact on the state budgets. Yet, the economic concern registered might be relieved by some of the positive economic impacts of high-speed rail identified by respondents with 58% stating that high-speed rail would connect people to good paying jobs and affordable housing. Additionally, 56% indicated that it would create jobs. Overall, 79% felt that it was important for the region’s economy for people to reach other cities quickly and affordably, indicating that improving regional transportation options is a priority for many residents.

In terms of equity, 53% of respondents agreed that high-speed rail would “make our region more equitable, by providing a cheaper, faster, more convenient way for all residents of the region to commute to jobs.” Only 30% of those polled indicated that they felt the high-speed rail would only serve “wealthy professionals who travel between the region’s cities.”

Strong support across different demographic groups

In addition to geographic diversity, the poll found strong support for high-speed rail among different demographic groups. Supporters included:

  • 67% of Washington voters and 60% of Oregon voters;
  • 84% of Democrats and 55% of independents;
  • 66% of women and 58% of men;
  • Majorities across every age range, specifically: 82% of voters under 30, 65% of voters in their 30s, 70% of voters in their 40s, 53% of voters ages 50 to 64, and 54% of voters age 65 and over;
  • 68% of voters with a four-year college degree, and 58% without one;
  • 65% of white voters and 66% of voters of color; and
  • 70% of urban voters, 64% of medium city and suburban voters, 57% of small-town voters, and 56% of rural voters.

The idea that someone could wake up in Eugene and make it to Vancouver, British Columbia in time for a lunch meeting might seem farfetched, but it should not. For millions of people in Asia and Europe, efficient, electricity-powered high-speed rail has been a reality for years, and in some cases over half a century. For instance, Japan’s Shinkansen “bullet trains” have been transporting passengers between cities since the 1960s.

High-speed rail would not only provide a safe, equitable, and environmentally sustainable transportation solution for Cascadia’s cities; it would also contribute to a virtuous cycle of development that would channel growth in urban centers, preventing sprawl and preserving the natural beauty the region is renowned for. As FM3 Research’s poll demonstrates, support from Pacific Northwest voters is already there, what we need is for elected leaders to push high-speed rail plans forward with determination and vision.

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Doug Trumm is The Urbanist's Executive Director. 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. He lives in East Fremont and loves to explore the city on his bike.

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Joe

I’m always for high and even higher speed rail. But the plan won’t work if the public system has to rely on trackage rights on BNSF, regardless if they are more public rail friendly compared to The Big Yellow Machine (UP). I read below that there are a number of bottlenecks that need clearing. While most appear to look Seattle south, people are quickly moving north. Right now most of the Seattle to Bellingham right-of-ways (ROW) northbound are single track. Additionally, these ROWs include draw or swing bridges and also cross over wetlands that future expansions will require causeways (or the rail equivalent of such). High and higher speed rail in the region won’t work unless the ROWs are greatly improved, or better yet, completely isolated from private networks.

Additionally, I find that while the Seattle region has a robust public transit system compared to other U.S. cities, it is still car-centric. I am searching for apartment housing within walking distance of a transit center along the I-5 corridor and find only one complex within a block of a transit center. The rest of the system is based a car-centric park and ride model with relatively weak transit feeders.

While everyone here is promoting rail transit infrastructure, based on what I see, all have overlooked the importance to work with community developers to build housing within easy walking distance of stations along the lines. Housing is becoming very expensive in the large cities. Fast reliable commuter rail will be far more attractive to commuters if they could zip from Centralia to either Seattle or Portland for work. Likewise for commuters in relatively inexpensive Mount Vernon who would benefit from a very fast and frequent ride to Seattle.

David Dunbar

I can be short about this. The Amtrak Cascades long range plan (ACLRP) is better in every way except speeds abd the speeds proposed here are not necessary period. So let’s build the ACLRP now,. It will make more stops and so serve more people; reduce more traffic and so reduce greenhouse gases; use existing rights of way and so actually be built and operating within most of our life times; serve freight to reduce diesel truck emissions; and cost a bundle less, a whole lot less.

Put the two plans side by side and it’s no contest. Write or call your representatives today and tell them to listen to the people, not an elite that thinks it needs the rail equivalent of the sst. We don’t. We need a practical, higher speed, say 125, not 150 mph service that provides more benefits to more people in far fewer years at far less cost

Mary Cogan Paterson

Agreed that a continued emphasis on highway maintenance and construction at the exclusion of rapid development of transit and rail hurtles us along the path to ruin. Agreed we need Smart Growth and affordable housing and good paying jobs to accommodate the growth our region can expect in the era of climate crisis. But focusing on Cascadia Rail’s “high speed rail” is a mistake, not only because it’s a Vision for 2050 and no help whatsoever for meeting 2030 emission reductions – but also because it will do little to benefit freight transportation or connect our small towns as well as big cities. Jobs won’t be plentiful until construction begins, maybe 20 years from now. The article doesn’t mention this timeframe, and that’s a big omission. Compare it to what we could have in transportation options and jobs by 2030 by implementing the Amtrak Cascades Long Range Plan on our existing corridor – and see how the poll results might have been different.

Lael White

A much smarter strategy: https://www.dropbox.com/sh/gvg4xjcx3hfjk3x/AACBXs6JwCZpLCm0MM8_lWHJa?dl=0
The Cascadia bullet train won’t provide construction jobs or ‘equitable mobility’ or ‘community connectivity’ until at least a decade from now. Developers, lawyers, high level engineering firms will have jobs, yes. Completion won’t be until likely beyond 2045, providing no emissions reductions from transportation until it’s up and running. We don’t have that long. We need emissions reductions urgently, now, moving passengers and freight to rail which means expanding and improving parts of the corridor *while operational*. We can do this building upon our existing network, which is what every other nation did. Skipping that step is folly. We should have done both 60 years ago but now we need to prioritize our existing investments and make our network efficient, faster, frequent, reliable, fully utilized. The private investors behind Cascadia Rail will want their expenses shifted onto the public, and they will gain even if it’s never built or indefinitely delayed. Tell our Legislatures and our Governors we need the practical (if less sexy) solution of building out our existing corridors. If private money wants to carve out all new right of way to go 250 mph, let them pay for it. But we need a well-functioning rail and transit system now.

RossB

Yes, exactly. We already have a plan, and it doesn’t cost that much. No, it wouldn’t mean that you can get to Portland in an hour, but it does mean that you can get to Portland much faster by taking a train than driving, which means you get almost as many people switching modes. Yet it is a lot cheaper.

We should stop pretending that the Northwest is much bigger than it is. We are not Tokyo. We are not Paris, or the Northeast. We aren’t even Texas. We should have faster trains, but building super expensive, super fast trains is silly. Just build what we planned on building, and be done with it.

Oh, it would also be nice if they sped up the the border crossing. Run the dogs through the luggage before the train leaves, and check everyone’s passport while the train is moving.

AJ M

Agreed. Once speed is consistently better than a personal vehicle trip, it’s far more useful to add additional trips throughout the day. Cascades service should be like Southwest Airlines, not the Concorde.

Ron Swanson

Just upgrade the BNSF line to class 7 track and get Cascades going 125mph Centralia to Vancouver. Incremental change that’s affordable.

RossB

Agreed.

Ott Toomet

What are the main bottlenecks on this line currently? I suspect one needs a new line through Seattle sooner or later, and that will be hell expensive. But what are other major problems with upgrading the current line?

Lael White

The Amtrak Cascades Long Range Plan removes many of the bottlenecks, permitting speeds up to 110 mph, a train per hour from Seattle to Portland, and every other hour from Seattle to BC. A tunnel under Seattle would be great but wasn’t in the plan. https://www.dropbox.com/sh/gvg4xjcx3hfjk3x/AACBXs6JwCZpLCm0MM8_lWHJa?dl=0

Lael White

I agree with incremental and rapid improvement to the Cascades corridor, *while operational* which is critical for reducing emissions. Except they analyzed an increase to 125mph and it was not at all cost effective. 110 mph is in the design until the next phase of RCW 47.49 is drafted, which would likely swing a segment out east and run 150 mph. And you’ve got to get BNSF in line to do all of that. It’s currently not their interest, even though they agreed to it, and helped develop the 2006 Amtrak Cascades Long Range Plan.

Kathryn

I’ll take reliable rail, electified as we have the dollars, Cascade corridor and, more importantly, East-West. For passengers AND freight. The environmental benefit is immediate compared to truck and auto traffic. On corridors we already have.

My interest is not building more roads and supporting towns and small cities for moving people and goods we need to and from our local places. This cannot be primarily about commuting. Long distance daily commutes by any mode are destructive to both families and communities.

Bubba Gump

“…trains that travel at 250 miles per hour on average”
“…located with easy access to other transit modes and airports”
“…transform our passenger rail network”
“…a safe, efficient, equitable, and affordable means of travel”
No mention of “taxes” or “rider fares/fees” in funding sources…

This was a push-poll. Complete garbage.

AJ M

And I don’t recall any questions about frequency, which underscores how unserious this effort is.

asdf2

I wouldn’t read too much into the result of the poll as the question is worded to encourage people to say “yes”. It talks only about the benefits, and doesn’t mention at all how much it would cost, whose taxes would be raised to pay for it, how long construction would take, or what environmental impact would result in building it. Nor does it mention how much the fares would be an what ongoing operational subsidy would be required. Opponents of high speed rail conducting their own poll could word the question to emphasize the costs and downplay the benefits, and the results would have likely been starkly different.

This is pretty much an issue with nearly all issue polls, as opposed to candidate polls – the way that a question is worded makes a huge difference.

I personally am not very optimistic about high speed rail here. Don’t get me wrong – if it were somehow built, I would definitely ride it. And if there existed a magic wand to build it in 5 years for $10 billion, I would certainly say go for it. But, between our topography and bureaucracy, I suspect the actual cost to build it would be more like 40 years/$200 billion, not 5 years/$10 billion, and at that point, I would argue it’s not worth it anymore. The California HSR boondoggle has made me quite skeptical, to say the least. (Houston->Dallas is different because they have a private company building it and flat topography).

Unrelated note about the legislature: There is a part of me that sometimes wonders if the best way to stop new highway megaprojects is to return to the days of divided government, and utilize the Republicans’ opposition to spending money on everything and anything to prevent the sprawl and environmental damage resulting from new highway construction. Of course, this would also mean state funding for walk/bike projects or transit wouldn’t pass also, but the state-level funding for that is such a pittance anyway, there’s not much room for it to get lower. Of course, the modern Republican party, with its stances against masks, vaccines, clean energy, immigrants, and anything to fight climate change, is doing everything possible to make sure that the above musings never result in me actually voting for them.

Ott Toomet

I’d frame my support in terms of marginal gains. Sure, if asked if I support Cascadia HSR I’d say yes. But if the question is framed like “We have $50B (or $200B or whatever) for doing good things. How would you spend this money?”, then HSR will not be very high in the priority list. I’d maybe start with urban planning and environment instead…

J.S.

The Shinkansen route from Tokyo to Osaka is roughly the same distance from Vancouver BC to Portland. 552.6 km vs. 506.9 km (via I-5). Travel time is 2h 22m by train or 5hr 9m by car via I-5. Plane is faster at 1hr 15m (non stop), but we all know that’s not accounting for all the time you spend stuck in the terminal and tarmac. Obviously Seattle being roughly in the middle is half that time for train and car. But still an hour via plane. https://www.nippon.com/en/features/h00077/

Also of note is the guys over at Cascadia High Speed Rail. Who have worked up a very detailed map of possible track locations. Far more detailed than the above map. https://cascadiahighspeedrail.com/

Bubba Gump

Covering 552 km in 2h 22 min works out to 230 km/hr, or 142 mph. That seems a fair amount slower than the “250 mph on average” cited in the so-called poll.