WSDOT is studying ultra-high-speed rail, upgrading its existing fleet which tops out at 120mph. (Credit: Washington State Department of Transportation)

The fight is starting over high-speed rail in Washington State. On Wednesday night, the 36th District Democrats considered a resolution to oppose the use of Climate Commitment Act funds in developing ultra fast ground transportation that would connect Portland, Seattle, and Vancouver, British Columbia. A similar resolution has already been adopted by groups in the 28th, 32nd, 46th and 48th legislative districts.

The Fighting 36th sent the resolution down to defeat by a somewhat tight vote of 20-18. As a speaker opposing the resolution, I think many attendees heard that the potential benefits of faster rail vastly outweigh the expense or open questions about the project.

It’s hard to blame the folks who worry about high-speed rail (HSR) as a boondoggle or a diversion of money. Rail boosters aren’t doing themselves any favors, and the state’s byzantine methods of developing projects sets many up to fail. No one is also showing how much benefit this project could have in real terms to people who live and work in our growing region. But that still doesn’t mean it’s smart to make these posturing anti-HSR resolutions.

Unresolved resolution

The current resolutions against high-speed rail base their arguments on the source of money. This year’s Washington Legislature approved the massive Move Ahead Washington Act, which will spend $17 billion on infrastructure over 16 years. High-speed rail was among many projects that would be funded by the Cap and Invest program established in Washington’s 2021 Climate Commitment Act. The resolution authors even say that they don’t actually oppose rail improvements, just using Climate Commitment Act money now to plan it.

The argument is that high-speed rail’s completion is too far flung in the future and the benefits too tenuous to use sparse Climate Commitment Act dollars. The $150 million to $200 million price tag for the planning of the system just does not translate to reduced carbon emissions.

Unfortunately, the resolution authors lean on misunderstanding the documents they’re citing. They picked a number from the Washington State Department of Transportation (WSDOT) Business Case study on HSR, which states that the project would save 6 million metric tons of carbon emissions over 40 years. A back-of-the-envelope calculation pegs that at 1% of the transportation emissions in Washington State. 

They also turn towards the Build Back Better report from the Low Carbon Prosperity Institute and Climate XChange that examines proposed green infrastructure investments. Of the projects examined in the report, high-speed rail has one of the lower impacts. All of this totals up to, in the eyes of opponents, a lot of money that won’t be getting Washington to its 2030 and 2040 carbon reduction targets.

Unfortunately, compartmentalizing these documents allows them to be misread. The Low Carbon folks did not rank projects, they modeled an extensive portfolio of investments and argued for them all — including high-speed rail — to be included. WSDOT’s report used the 6 million tons of CO2 calculation to illustrate just how many planes and cars could be replaced by rail trips. The resolution omits other numbers from the reports, including the thousand tons of particulates kept out of the ecosystem, reduced commute times, or reduced highway expansions that come from high-speed rail. These are climate benefits that are right in the wheelhouse of the Climate Commitment Act.

Focusing on that 6 million ton number is a little like saying that the benefit of drinking water is only the money saved by not buying soda. It completely ignores benefits like keeping your teeth, and avoiding kidney stones, and cutting calories. 

Not actually a terrible argument

Now, here’s the rub. Folks pointing out that the benefits of high-speed rail are tenuous and remote have a point. This is a rail system that won’t start rolling for decades and we need climate action now.

Boosters don’t do themselves any favors. The leading edge of support comes from the Cascadia Innovation Corridor. We’ve been to their conferences, which are good but austere. Their idea to stitch together the Pacific Northwest into a mega-region is forward looking and aspirational and never touches the ground where most people live. But it involves tearing up remote towns and replacing them with digi-topian “Hub Cities.” Headlining by Microsoft reinforces a tech-heavy but deeply detached perspective. 

Washington State sucks at making these projects happen. The state and local governments develop elaborate processes for getting anything new out of the ground. Compromises are made up front, then made again during the process, and then the harshest opposition comes from inside the House (and Senate). A committee studies a task force to set up an authority to oversee the project to plan for something to be built. Each new organization is met with “Do you remember the monorail expansion? I do.”

And most importantly, what gets built is left to twist in the wind. There’s not enough promoting the benefits of the infrastructure we do build. There’s an opening party, then it just becomes another part of daily life. More often than not, it’s backlash and delay. Even where we get transit right, it’s very hard to point out the specific benefit to an individual. Does light rail make it really easy to get to a Huskies game? Yes. Is that enough to help someone change the way they get groceries? Not yet, and we force years of station planning to maybe one day get it there.

All that totals up to an audience receptive to rhetoric that’s anti-high-speed rail (and anti-transit, and anti-zoning reform, and anti-social housing).

But it also means that the argument is not actually about high-speed rail. That’s why opponents can use a shell argument about greenhouse gases to get traction for defunding the project. The real argument is about failing to show a connection between expense and improvement. Today’s gap between investment and benefits is really the kernel of tomorrow’s opposition. Until tangible improvements are regularly shown to people — and loudly and repeatedly labeled that this is what your investments created — that kernel will continuously grow.

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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.