Bullet train between Vancouver and Portland?

The prospect of the Pacific Northwest’s largest cities being connected by a train capable of traveling 250 mph or faster received a nudge from the State Legislature as the recently enacted supplemental transportation budget included up to $1.2 million toward a business-case analysis for a high-speed rail line between Vancouver, BC, Seattle and Portland.

Project proponents – particularly Gov. Inslee – argue that a high-speed rail line in the region could facilitate billions of dollars in economic activity and create hundreds of thousands of jobs in the corridor. The rail line would, in effect, shrink the distances between the region’s major cities, turning a more than three-hour drive into an hour’s ride.

The route’s alignment and stop locations are yet to be determined, but the new analysis will look at building stations in several Washington cities.

British Columbia Premier John Horgan announced his provincial government would contribute $300,000 toward the analysis.

“We have taken the first step… Washington conducted a feasibility study, and it came back with nothing but optimism,” Inslee said, referencing a study submitted to the Legislature last December that predicted the route could have up to 2.1 million riders annually by 2035, and could cost between $24 billion and $42 billion to construct. “This is the second step. It is a business-case analysis. It is designed to bring stakeholders in so we can listen to the industries that could be benefitted — and there are many in this regard.”

The first study referenced by Gov. Inslee provided what some consider the astronomical cost estimate of $24-$42 billion. CH2M, which conducted the first study, examined several different train technologies that could whisk you along the I-5 corridor at 250 miles per hour or faster. The options reviewed include: high-speed rail as found in Europe and East Asia; even faster magnetic levitation—or maglev—trains in limited use in Asia; and the still conceptual Hyperloop, which involves passenger capsules propelled through tubes or tunnels maintained in partial vacuum.

The idea has been met with some skepticism in Olympia.

"You have a finite amount of money to address transportation. Do we need to spend part of that on more studies that are going to sit in a drawer and ten years from now won't be worth the paper they're written on?" Sen. Curtis King, ranking Republican on the Senate Transportation Committee, asked. "From my standpoint, I would be hard pressed to put more money into a study on technologies and a project that is so expensive that no one knows how they are going to pay for it."

The chair of the Senate Transportation Committee, Sen. Steve Hobbs, supports the analysis. “Our state is undergoing a transition from the transportation methods of the past to those of the future,” said Hobbs. “As we do this, I think it is critical that we consider every option and decide what modes of transportation best connects and serves Washington’s communities. Taking a good look at ultra high-speed rail certainly meets that measure. I will be interested to see what this study reveals.”

With the new analysis, the Legislature tasks several state departments to participate in advisory group, including the Washington State Department of Transportation and Washington State Department of Commerce. Representatives from Oregon and British Columbia will also be invited to join the advisory group in addition to several state legislators, representatives in communities along the study corridor, and stakeholders from the public and private sectors. The study will likely conduct a market analysis of potential riders by areas served and evaluate a variety of relevant factors (e.g., service levels, operational model, equipment needs, ridership, comparative market analysis, public-private partnership scenarios, and financing and fares).

The business case analysis on high-speed rail is due by June 30, 2019, which will give time for policymakers to prepare for next steps they could take in the 2020 legislative session.