Now that Link is well into its first year, it’s going to start making additional investment in transit projects easier on many fronts. One of those is intercity high speed rail. More after the jump.
The state of high speed rail planning in Washington leaves much to be desired. While we did recently win $590 million in stimulus funding, the projects that money will fund are only advancing us toward 110mph service, referred to as “Emerging High Speed Rail”. Our state’s incremental approach has been successful at building ridership, but its goals are limited – even with many billions more in investment, we’d only eventually reduce travel time between Seattle and Portland by an hour – from 3:30 today to 2:30. These projects do a lot more for freight carriers than human beings. High speed rail service in Asia and Europe has been going faster than this since the 1960s – new lines are over 200mph, in topographies far more challenging than anything we have to offer.
Our high speed rail office will tell you that they have a plan for real high speed rail service, but that the legislature’s not planning to fund the plan. Our current plan ends at service that gets to 110mph in a few places, but sticks mostly to the freight tracks we have today.
We have to sell the idea of going farther than that. And one of the biggest obstacles is showing demand – being able to project strong ridership. It’s especially difficult to do that when people have to take a bus to the station, or pay for parking! But in both Portland in Seattle last year, light rail lines now connect directly to our intercity stations. We should see that start to be reflected in Amtrak Cascades ridership this year.
And we should point this out to the legislature next year. If we start doing real high speed rail planning in 2011, we’ll see higher potential ridership from Link and MAX. By the time high speed rail could be built, we’d see U-Link and ST2 online as well, allowing people from all over the region to get to the station – and they would, if they were looking at a 1-hour trip to Portland.
Five years ago, it could have been impossible to win a fight for high speed rail planning in the legislature. I think that having new rail transit connections in our biggest cities, and now seeing the administration dole out half-billion dollar packages for passenger rail, may change that. The faster we can capitalize on it, the better.