There are two possible futures for Cascade rail service. Are they mutually exclusive?
It’s been a whiplash-inducing year for intercity passenger rail in the US. The “Green New Deal” suggests the possibility of sweeping high speed investments at the same time as California’s project is retrenching. Colorado, a growing Western state where the population is similarly concentrated along a single north-south interstate, is starting to think about intercity passenger rail service. And here in Washington, Governor Inslee continues to move forward a high-speed rail business plan and the legislature continues to dribble out funds to study it, while at the same time WSDOT picks up the pieces from the DuPont crash.
Long-time Cascades watchers, though, know there’s another, older plan for upgrading interstate rail service. Released in 2007, the Long Range Plan for Amtrak Cascades was created to guide Cascades development through 2023. According to WSDOT’s Janet Malkin, this plan is very much alive and we should expect an update by the end of the year.
The Long Range Plan (LRP), which we’ve covered previously, envisions a Seattle-Portland running time of 2.5 hours, down from nearly 3.5 today, and 14 daily departures. Seattle-Vancouver would similarly be about 2.5 hours and have 4 trains/day. It proposes dozens of projects, including double and triple tracking, high-speed bypasses, and new high-speed track. Trains would still be diesel, and have a top speed of 110mph.
The 2007 publication of the LRP was fortuitous. Just two years later, the world would be mired in recession and the Obama administration, in search of signature high-speed rail stimulus projects, would eventually steer $800M in federal funds to Washington State rail. Thanks to the LRP, the state had a bunch of off-the-shelf projects to submit. After governors in Florida and Wisconsin rejected the money, Washington ended up with a windfall. 20 projects were funded, including the purchase of new locomotives and a rehab of King Street Station.
With the Point Defiance Bypass now complete, the stimulus projects are officially over (though work continues on mudslide mitigation and a new Ballard ship canal crossing). It’s time to think about what’s next: Should the state choose going forward: incrementally update the existing rail corridor, or build an entirely new one, as the Governor’s HSR plan envisions? Do we even need to choose?
Thomas White, a consultant who spent “half a decade” on a team developing the LRP for WSDOT, told me recently over email that he thought executing the entire 2007 plan would cost about $8.5B in today’s dollars. (Coincidentally, that’s almost exactly what the recently proposed carbon tax would bring in.) By contrast, some estimates of PDX-SEA-VAN HSR run into the $20-30B range. White thinks it will be closer to $50B when all is said and done. Given California’s experience, that certainly seems possible.
(Read our 4-part series on Cascadia high speed rail here)
Jon Cracolici, the Vice President of Cascadia Rail, which has chapters in all major Northwest cities, told me by phone that he sees the two plans as complementary. “We feel that a transformative investment in a high speed rail system and improving current transit infrastructure are complimentary goals. Hurting transit in one place doesn’t help transit in another place,” he told me. I-5 is approaching 50 years old and needs major maintenance. To wit, WSDOT’s Roger Millar recently told the legislature that adding a lane to I-5 through Washington could cost upwards of $110B “and still take all day to travel.” At that cost, HSR starts to look like a better deal.
White, the LRP author, still thinks the incremental approach is the way to go. “The environmental impact statement for Vancouver BC – Portland, permitting, and engineering will be at least a decade…before the first construction work can be performed. We need to reduce emissions by 45% by 2030. It doesn’t work out,” he says.
White estimates that federal stimulus funds built “less than 10%” of the long range plan. Budgets were trimmed to hit the $800M number (remember, our state was coming out of recession and didn’t have local funds to match the feds), resulting in some track that still isn’t up to 110mph standards. That leaves a substantial amount of work to complete the original LRP. While $8.5B seems like a lot, WSDOT could fully complete the plan within a decade if it dedicated 10% of its annual budget to Cascades capital improvements.
On the other hand, political forces (Inslee’s presidential bid, local business interests), seem to be gravitating towards something much more ambitious.
Here’s an important fact about high speed rail: large jumps in top speed add an order of magnitude to costs. A 2x jump in speed – say from 110mph to 220mph – can mean a much larger jump in dollars. Turning radii need to be substantially wider, grade crossings need to be eliminated completely, and full electrification is required. A question for politicians and WSDOT to ponder is whether that jump in costs will return much greater benefits.
It might! It’s hard to know what things will look like in 2050. If greater Cascadia is a teeming megaregion of 25 million climate refugees, no one will look back and say “boy I wish we hadn’t spent that money on this amazing train.” The ability to get to Tacoma in 15 minutes or Portland in an hour will be transformative in ways we can’t even imagine, and the projected 5,000 daily riders will seem laughably low. As Cracolici told me, “If traveling by high speed rail takes you right to your job, meeting, or dinner, with great connections to the other transit systems, we feel that ridership will be very high.” A more detailed business case is due later this month from WSDOT that could shed some more light on ridership, he added.
On the other hand, while it might not be the stuff to stir men’s souls, in Daniel Bunham’s famous phrase, 110mph service is a serious improvement from today’s service, and well within our state budget capacity. “Frequency is freedom,” and 14 daily departures with 2.5 hour travel times to Portland or Vancouver would provide lots of near-term benefits and set the stage for more investments down the road.
WSDOT, for its part, is keeping both options open, which could be both beneficial and possibly distracting. The legislature, meanwhile, has been reluctant to hand out more than a trickle of funds — and that’s just for HSR studies.
Hopefully all this attention — from local corporations, grassroots activists, and governors with aspirations of higher office — means that shovels could be in the ground again soon.