Washington State proposes $150 million for Vancouver-Seattle high-speed rail planning

Feb 14 2022, 9:55 pm

The push to build a high-speed rail passenger service connecting Vancouver, Seattle, and Portland is about to get very serious.

Washington State legislative officials are proposing the expenditure of US$150 million (CA$191 million) towards the proposed high-speed rail project linking the major urban centres of all three provincial and state jurisdictions.

This would be a major step forward, as the funding is likely to go towards a new phase of project planning, including more detailed technical work, public consultation, environmental impact studies, funding development, further analysis on the business case, and unique operating model for a system that runs across three jurisdictions and two countries.

This advanced level of planning for the project is being pursued at this time to take advantage of US president Joe Biden’s US$1 trillion (CA$1.27 trillion) infrastructure bill, which was signed in November 2021.

If Washington State approves this spending measure, it could potentially open up as much as US$700 million (CA$891 million) in US federal funding through various grants and programs to support the project’s planning and development.

“It is an attempt to match the historic commitment we’ve seen from the Biden administration on the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act. The federal government has put ample new resources on the table,” said Democratic senator Marko Liias, who represents the 21st district of Everrett, during a press conference last week.

“Our federal delegation worked very hard to secure Washington’s place in line, to secure that funding — to match and get federal funds. The governor has signed a memorandum of understanding with the province of British Columbia and the state of Oregon, that’ll help us further develop and refine our high-speed rail plan. This is designed to pull down those federal resources that our federal partners on our delegation, the Biden administration, have put aside to make sure Washington has a vision for high-speed rail.”

The provincial government of British Columbia and the state government of Oregon have yet to publicly indicate whether funding is forthcoming to support Washington State’s efforts.

Over the last few years, and with further support from Microsoft, all three governments have together spent several million dollars on partnership studies exploring the high-level feasibility and economic benefits of such a project.

In December 2020, a report summarizing the project work to date stated the next step to move the project into further planning development would be to establish a new coordinating organization, based on the tri-jurisdictional partnership agreement.

Early concepts for the passenger rail service envision speeds of up to 400 km/hr (250 mph), and offer travel times of under one hour between Vancouver and Seattle, and between Seattle and Portland, while also making a number of stops in communities of significance along the way.

The vast majority of the route would travel within Washington State, given that Metro Vancouver and Portland are just beyond the edge of the state’s northern and southern borders.

Vancouver Seattle Portland high speed rail

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

"Vancouver

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

If the line were to be built by 2035, it would see 2.1 million annual riders upon opening, with ridership growing to 3.3 million annually by 2055. It would carry a construction cost of between US$24 billion and US$42 billion (CA$36 billion to CA$53.5 billion), with economic spinoffs reaching as much as US$355 billion (CA$452 billion) and generating as many as 200,000 new direct and indirect jobs.

If the line were built from Vancouver to Portland, it would cost between US$24 billion and US$42 billion. Upon opening in 2035, it would see 2.1 million annual riders, and reach 3.3 million per year by 2055.

Washington State’s proposed funding for the high-speed rail project is just one component of a broad US$16 billion (CA$20.4 billion) transportation investment strategy through 2038, with major expenditures towards new and improved public transit, road infrastructure, and active transportation.

Kenneth ChanKenneth Chan

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