The Cascadia Rail Summit was held from Nov 6-8. Hosted at the Microsoft headquarters in Redmond and organized by the US High Speed Rail Association, the conference brought together some key decision makers from government, consulting, and rail operators and train manufacturers from around the world. Even for a rail skeptic, it is hard to dismiss the momentum that high speed rail is gaining in the Pacific Northwest.
Opening remarks by Gov. Jay Inslee
While it wasn’t in person, but a recording made specifically for the conference, the first speaker was none other than Gov. Jay Inslee, vouching his support for the initiative and kicking off the discussion.
To put this into perspective, ST3 did not enjoy such high-caliber early support. Years before it was up for vote, Sound Transit did not consider a ballot measure in 2016, or of that size. Its passage is a testament to the power of advocacy. Consider then, how much can be achieved with this initiative given that the highest ranks of politics in the state are already on board.
Roger Millar, WSDOT Secretary
Next came WSDOT Secretary Roger Millar who delivered an engaging and data-filled speech.
He made many points in support of HSR as a viable alternative to our transportation problems:
- The pace of highway expansion has not and will not be able to keep up with the pace of population growth:
- Between 2004 and 2011 WSDOT spent 75% of its capital budget on expansions, but that only resulted in a 1% increase of lane miles.
- At the same time the economy is growing at over 2% per year.
- While the $30-40b price tag of high speed rail may seem immense, consider that:
- WSDOT will spend about $90b over the next 20 years on capital improvements
- If we were to add one lane per direction to I-5 for its entirety within the state – from the BC to OR border, that would cost $108b.
- Construction will take as long to build high speed rail, but most importantly by the time it is open the lanes would likely be full due to induced demand. Travel time would still be over 3 hours to either Vancouver or Portland.
- Truck traffic alone is expected to increase by 30% over the next 20 years, which would consume much future capacity on I-5.
- In comparison, for half the cost of that extra lane, travel time will be cut to an hour in either direction using high speed rail.
- As a regional system, rail can help people find more affordable housing outside of Seattle as it effectively shrinks the region.
- Last he emphasized that as a region we can compete globally with regions the size of Singapore and Shanghai. We should not see Vancouver and Portland as competitors, but rather as parts of a whole.
Senator Marko Liias, Washington State
Millar was followed by WA State Senator Marko Liias. He doubled down on the regional scope of this initiative:
- This is not a Seattle initiative. Rather it is about building out Bellingham, Mt Vernon, Everett, Olympia, Kelso, etc.
- Rail is a unique instrument to spread the economic opportunity we see in Seattle across the state.
- The private sector should also be engaged for financing, building and maintaining the project. He provided examples of this – building a bridge in Michigan across to the Canadian border with a bi-national coalition, in the UK & FR they built the Chunnel Tunnel with a bi-national coalition.
King County Executive Dow Constantine
A quick lookup shows that King County constituted 41% of the entire WA state GDP in 2018. As such, it plays an irreplaceable role in creating a Cascadia megaregion. This is why having its leadership aligned is crucial. King County Executive Dow Constantine is more than aligned:
- Dow introduced the vision for HSR at the first Cascadia Innovation Conference in 2016.
- He is chair of the Sound Transit board and spearheaded the 2016 ST3 ballot measured. He sees ST3 as a precursor to HSR:
- Critics will run by the same playbook: how will we pay for, who will ride it, how to assemble the political will.
- The key to the success of ST3 was the ability to create a broad coalition of business, labor, social justice and environmental groups.
- Receiving the support of the biggest employers was key for ST3:
- Most significantly Microsoft stepped up, not just as a financial contributor, but as a leader in the business community to spread the word that we need this for our economic success – while it bears a significant cost, without it the region will fall behind.
- Then they were joined by Amazon, Expedia, Costco and ultimately dozens of others.
- As a result regional business leaders are equally invested in the success of the agency.
- Another revelation after the ST3 campaign was that the more modest, less expensive the measure was – the less popular it was.
- Naturally one would think that a cheaper measure would be more likely to be approved.
- But they actually had to increase the scope and size of the measure to make it popular enough to pass. ST3 would connect every part of the Seattle metropolitan area including every major employment center with high capacity transit and would be meaningful for all residents.
- Ultimately it is about infusing the public conversation with a sense of purpose and mission – that this is about laying the foundation for a better, cleaner, more equitable future.
- In the Q&A after his speech he briefly mentioned that there will be a great deal of property appreciation as a result of this project and that can help pay for it. It is important to start early in this land value capture process.
Steve Mullin, President, Washington Roundtable
The Washington Roundtable is a non-profit comprised of senior executives from the largest corporations in the state (and thus in the US or even the world), including Microsoft, Boeing, Starbucks, Alaska Airlines, Vulcan, and many more. The Roundtable is a participant in the advisory committee to the HSR study.
- The Roundtable partnered with BCG on a study of the impacts on the transportation system of current and future economic growth. Between 2020-2040 if we only keep the current pace of transportation investments the state will lose around $370 billion due to direct impacts from poor road conditions, congestion, lost opportunities at seaports and airports. That comprises 78% of current state GDP and the estimate was made prior to passage of I-976!
- So HSR is a really a key tool to address the negative economic challenges that are expected.
Former Governor Christine Gregoire
- Gregoire has 4 main focus areas – education, middle-income housing affordability, transportation and is also the Cascadia Innovation Corridor co-chair. Her support for HSR as a leader of an important business coalition is also a major asset for the initiative.
- She emphasized how WA has more in common with BC than practically any state in the US and that she has made a number of cross-border efforts work:
- Enhanced driver’s license to make crossing the border easier
- Oil Spill Task Force covering CA, OR, WA, BC and AK
- These required the collaboration of 2 federal governments and multiple state governments and were still achieved. We should not see the border as an obstacle, but a challenge that can be mitigated.
John Marchione, Mayor of Redmond
- Redmond is unique in having 65k residents and 90k jobs, daytime population 120k and major corporations represented like Microsoft, SpaceX, Tesla.
- John also serves as a chairman of Sound Transit. He re-emphasized the need for tax reform due to the regressive nature of the current sales tax-based system.
- Voters need to be educated about what they are paying for, as currently voters who are not paying for ballot measures believe they are. He does not see policy by referendum as good law. The legislature should be making these policies upfront.
With this roster of politicians pitching in their support and with a strong economic argument (both in terms of opportunity cost if we don’t do it, and comparative cost if we do it), even a skeptic can start believing that high speed rail in Washington state has a fighting chance.
Tomorrow, we’ll look at some of the more technical sessions.
UPDATE 3:39PM: Added reference to the event’s organizers in the first paragraph.