Opinion: It's time for BC businesses to show their support for Vancouver-Seattle high-speed rail

Sep 7 2022, 9:17 pm

Written for Daily Hive Urbanized by David Hoff, who is the Canadian co-chair of infrastructure for the Housing Transportation Connectivity Working Committee of the Cascadia Innovation Corridor, the director of the board for BC Business Council, and the former director of the board for VIA Rail Canada.

The proposal to build a high-speed passenger rail service (HSR) connecting Vancouver, Seattle, and Portland is beginning to gain momentum.

What began as a far-off idea is now an exciting vision for our region’s future, one where people can move quickly between major cities and drive widespread economic growth. Now is the time for British Columbia’s Lower Mainland business community to get engaged.

In fact, the development of HSR service has been a key agenda item for regional leaders at the Cascadia Innovation Corridor Conference since 2016.

The conference is an annual gathering of businesses, governments, non-profits, and academic institutions across the Pacific Northwest that seek to enhance cross-border trade, investment, and the movement of people.

The Business Council of BC and Challenge Seattle formed the Cascadia Innovation Corridor (CIC) to help integrate the economies of the Metro Vancouver and Greater Seattle regions into a global “mega-region.”

However, what began as a cross-border business initiative quickly attracted the attention of the British Columbia provincial and Washington State governments.

Now each year, the premier of BC and the governors of Washington and Oregon participate in the CIC conference to help spur various economic, trade, and academic initiatives, including high-speed rail.

So far, the numbers support their interest in HSR. Several feasibility studies have been undertaken and funded by the governments of BC, Washington, and Oregon, Microsoft, and labour groups to determine if HSR is feasible and beneficial for the Cascadia region. Each one arrives at the same conclusion: HSR could be a major boon for the region’s economy and transportation system. And with the increased attention on carbon emissions, knowledge economies, 100-mile diets, housing affordability, global economic competition, and more, the concept of developing a “mega-region” across the US-Canada border makes more and more sense.

The push for HSR has even drawn significant state and national support from the United States federal government. Recently, President Joe Biden’s administration and the US Congress passed a major infrastructure bill that committed US$66 billion (CND$80 billion) towards the development of passenger and freight rail across the United States. The program includes US$12 billion (CND$15.7 billion) for intercity passenger rail, including high-speed rail.

One of the HSR corridors specifically identified by the US federal government is the Vancouver-Seattle-Portland route.

The Washington State legislature recently reinforced this commitment by authorizing US$4 million (CND$5.3 million) to help study and plan the HSR initiative and set aside US$150 million (CND$197 million) to serve as a match for US federal funds. The BC government is also making a significant contribution and moving towards broad stakeholder consultations.

The state of Oregon has contributed to high-speed rail studies in the past and remains engaged in the ongoing discussions around development plans.

Vancouver Seattle Portland high speed rail

Cascadia high-speed rail business case, July 2019. (Washington State Department of Transportation)

Vancouver Seattle Portland high speed rail

Cascadia high-speed rail business case, July 2019. (Washington State Department of Transportation)

Although the BC Business Council has been leading the charge with the business community on the Canadian side of the border, the initiative now needs to broaden its support with more BC businesses and business associations.

Businesses, transportation and tourism associations, and chambers of commerce from Vancouver, Burnaby, New Westminster, Delta and Surrey will benefit by the development as their communities and economies tap into valuable growth opportunities.

This is especially true for Surrey. It is very likely that the Portland-Seattle-Vancouver HSR service will first cross into Canada in Surrey, and the first SkyTrain rapid transit connection may also be in the city.

On the US side of the border, the Americans are already building a significant business coalition in support of the HSR project. This group will join with state, municipal, and economic development agencies, as well as academic and labour groups, to lobby the Biden government for financial support.

Canada needs to keep up. A Pacific Northwest HSR service would help create jobs, affordable housing and business investment opportunities across the region while lowering cross-border waiting, travel times, and carbon emissions. And it would help the Pacific Northwest region compete against the other mega-regions forming in North America and around the world. In short: HSR would benefit our entire region, and it needs our entire region’s support.

Businesses and business associations that would like to learn more about the HSR initiative and get involved are encouraged to attend the upcoming CIC conference in Semiahmoo, Washington on September 12 and 13. They can also contact the Business Council of British Columbia or visit the CIC website.

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