This post originally appeared on Orphan Road.

I’ve had this great New York Times post-mortem by Michael Cooper of Florida’s high-speed rail project bookmarked for a few weeks now, trying to figure out how to work it into a post. Fortunately, Zach Shaner’s post “On Rail Nostalgia” over at STB gives me a great hook into it. Zach writes:

But as rail advocates we need to keep our own house in order; we need to be selective but passionate with our support, and do our best to focus upon the mobility and development outcomes of any project rather than getting sidetracked by the sexiness of steel.

But at the same time let’s put our critics’ straw man to rest. We don’t want a return to the 19th century; we are done with stumptowns, regrades, Great Fires, and a world without labor and environmental laws. What we want is entirely new and entirely progressive: yesterday’s density with today’s affluence. We don’t want yesterday’s density-by-necessity, we want today’s density-by-choice. And we won’t get there with sentimentality, with nostalgia, or by blowing our political capital spreading projects too thin. In the Northeast, California, and Chicago, we need to go big. In the Pacific Northwest, our quiet incrementalism will pay off. [emphasis added]

I think there’s some appeal to that idea, that the “quite incrementalism” is a better, more sustainable approach. Still, reading the Times account, the benefits of “go big” approach are evident as well. If Washington State had a similarly ambitious plan for HSR, would we have gotten the money instead?

The Tampa-Orlando HSR project snagged $2.4B — or about 30% — of the administration’s $8B high speed rail funds, more than any other project. According to the Times, this was because:

  • The project was well into the planning phases
  • right-of-way had mostly been acquired
  • It could be opened as soon as 2015
  • Florida is a swing state
  • The federal money would have covered almost 100% of the costs

In other words, the Florida project was about as shovel ready as they come. As a result, it was showered by federal cash, even though there were doubts about the underlying fundamentals, such as the fact that two low-density metro areas separated by just 84 miles doesn’t look like a great corridor for HSR.

Now that Florida’s governor has killed the project and sent the $2.4B back to Washington, other states will vie for the money. So here’s what I want to know: what would it take for our state to put together a proposal as ambitious as Florida’s? And how did Florida get so far ahead of us, anyway? Haven’t we been thinking about HSR at least since Ecotopia? What impact, if any, did the 2009 re-org of the WSDOT passenger rail office have in all of this?

The Amtrak Cascades corridor, running 420 miles from Vancouver, BC to Eugene, OR, is a federally-designated HSR corridor. For the purposes of this discussion, let’s consider a “starter line” between Seattle and Portland, roughly 175 miles. This line would be about twice as long as the Tampa-Orlando route. The combined population of the Seattle + Portland metro areas is 4.3 million, compared with 3.2 million for Tampa + Orlando.

The first place to go when thinking about the Cascades corridor is WSDOT’s long-range plan from 2006. That document sets a goal of 2.5 hour service from Seattle to Portland by 2023, which, if you do the math, is an average speed of 70mph. WSDOT estimates that getting the whole corridor (Vancouver – Seattle – Portland) upgraded would cost about $6.5B. It’s hard to break out the funding by segment, but looking at the various projects involved, I’ll ballpark the Seattle-Portland segment at $4B.

What I’m left wondering is this: is the approach of incremental upgrades to the BNSF corridor the right one? We’re about to spend $750M in Recovery Act money on upgrades to this corridor… to what end? 70mph service in 12 years, only to still be dependent on BNSF for right-of-way?

What if instead we put together a plan like Florida’s: true HSR along a new right-of-way (the I-5 median, perhaps?) between Seattle and Portland. How would it compare to the $4B in upgrades we’re currently planning? What would the end result be? Could we get the time down to 1.5 hours instead of 2.5? Could we run trains all day? If anyone has done or seen a comparison of these approaches, I’d love to see it.

Maybe these options aren’t mutually exclusive. Maybe we can get something like true HSR out of the BNSF corridor. But given what other states are proposing, and given the kinds of projects that the feds seem to want to fund right now, our approach is starting to look timid, rather than just incremental. Florida had a good strategy but a flawed corridor. We have a good corridor, but do we have a flawed strategy?

The Long-Range Plan was crafted when Amtrak was in the ropes and the President and Congress were both hostile to rail in general. Incrementalism made sense. Today, things are different. The Obama administration is practically begging for a state to raise its hand and offer a bold HSR project that can be delivered in a reasonable timeline for under $5 billion. Bonus points if it’s in a swing state and has a rail-friendly governor and legislature. Why can’t that be us?