Washington state invests $150 million in high-speed rail

Washington state is paying $150 million to plan a high-speed rail line linking Seattle, Portland and Vancouver, British Columbia – although there is still a long way to go before the project becomes a reality.

why is it important: Traffic congestion is a major problem in all three metropolitan areas.

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

Catch up fast: A high-speed train could travel at speeds of 250 miles per hour or more, dramatically reducing travel time between the three cities.

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

  • The money is designed to attract approximately $600 million in matching federal grants.
  • If that happens, Washington state — along with leaders from British Columbia and Oregon — could formally meet to begin planning a route connecting the three cities, said Sen. Marko Liias, who chairs the Senate Transport Committee.
  • That would mean deciding where the tracks would go, choosing station locations and most likely completing preliminary engineering work, Liias told Axios this week.
  • If the federal money does not arrive, the $150 million of state money will not be spent.

What they say“We already have significant air travel between these cities,” Liias said. “From a climate perspective, as we develop future connections, we don’t necessarily want people to drive their cars or walk those short distances.”

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

The other side: State Representative Andrew Barkis, the ranking Republican on the House Transportation Committee, told Axios he thinks spending on high-speed rail is “a waste of money.”

  • Barkis (R-Olympia) said he would prefer the legislature direct funds toward improving the Amtrak Cascades service that already connects the three cities.
  • Upgrading the existing rail line would not require the state to acquire vast amounts of new land, a process that can be time-consuming and costly, he said.

Liias argued that many countries with well-functioning rail systems have both high-speed rail service and intercity service like Amtrak Cascades. “We should have all of that,” he said.

And after: Liias estimated that, even if everything goes according to plan, the high-speed train would not be complete for at least 15 to 20 years.

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

Jose P. Rogers