Jun 10, 2022 - Politics

A first step toward high-speed rail in the Pacific Northwest

Illustration of Ben Franklin wearing a train conductor hat.
Illustration: Allie Carl/Axios

Washington state is ponying up $150 million to plan a high-speed rail line connecting Seattle, Portland, and Vancouver, British Columbia — although there's still a long way to go before the project becomes reality.

Why it matters: Traffic congestion is a major issue in the three metropolitan areas.

  • State officials hope that an electric, high-speed train will reduce the need for people to drive and fly, while curbing greenhouse emissions that cause climate change.

Catch up fast: A bullet train could move at speeds of 250 miles per hour or more, dramatically cutting travel time among the three cities.

What's happening: State lawmakers included the $150 million in a $17 billion transportation package approved in March.

  • The money is designed to attract about $600 million in federal matching grants.
  • Should that happen, Washington state — along with leaders in British Columbia and Oregon — could formally come together to start planning a route connecting the three cities, said state Sen. Marko Liias, who chairs the Senate Transportation Committee.
  • That would mean deciding where the tracks would go, picking station locations, and most likely completing preliminary engineering work, Liias told Axios this week.
  • If the federal money doesn't come through, the $150 million in state money won't get spent.

What they're saying: "We already have significant air travel between these cities," Liias said. "From a climate lens, as we grow future connections, we don't necessarily want people driving their cars or flying these short distances."

  • A bullet train would be powered by electricity instead of fossil fuels, he added.

The other side: State Rep. Andrew Barkis, the ranking Republican on the House Transportation Committee, told Axios that he thinks spending on the bullet train is "a waste of money."

  • Barkis (R-Olympia) said he would rather see the legislature direct money toward improving the Amtrak Cascades service that already connects the three cities.
  • Upgrading the existing train line wouldn't require the state to acquire vast amounts of new land, a process that can be time-consuming and expensive, he said.

Liias argued that many countries with successful rail systems have both high-speed rail and inter-city service like Amtrak Cascades. "We should have all of it," he said.

What's next: Liias estimated that, even if everything goes according to plan, the bullet train wouldn't be complete for a minimum of 15 to 20 years.

  • Barkis thinks it would take even longer.
  • Once a project plan is complete, the state and its partners would have to come up with tens of billions of dollars to build the train line.
  • A 2017 feasibility study found the project is likely to cost between $24 billion and $42 billion.
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