Opposing politicians clash over potential multi-billion dollar bullet train

Aug 17, 2023, 11:12 PM

bullet train washington...

(Photo courtesy of KIRO 7)

(Photo courtesy of KIRO 7)

A group of Washington Democratic representatives is pushing for an additional $198 million grant for planning a bullet train between Portland, Oregon, and Vancouver, British Columbia, through a letter addressed to Secretary of Transportation Pete Buttigieg.

If successful, the train could connect Vancouver to Seattle and Seattle to Portland in less than 90 minutes.

In support, State Sen. Marko Liias of the 21st District said the Puget Sound region is expanding with tens of thousands of people moving into the region annually. In the next 20 years, according to Liias, an additional couple of million people will be living in the region.

“We’ve got to figure out a way to keep traffic and goods moving. What we’ve identified is we need to enhance the ability to move people and goods,” Liias told KIRO Newsradio. “That means more airport capacity, more rail capacity, and some more highway capacity. High-speed rail is a really efficient way to create more opportunities for people to move quickly throughout our broad region, from Portland to Seattle to Vancouver.”

“Everything we’re going to do is expensive,” Liias continued. “But this is one of those things we’ve got to look at and invest in to make sure we’re keeping up with growth.”

More on a potential PNW bullet train: High-speed rail gets a resounding ‘No!’ from KIRO Newsradio listeners

But many throughout the state have challenged the resourcefulness of investing in a bullet train — currently estimated to cost $24 billion to $42 billion — including Republican State Rep. Andrew Barkis of the 2nd District.

“Why are we doing this? We have so many other things in the state of Washington that need our attention when it comes to transportation,” Barkis said. “We don’t have the revenue to take care of what we have in front of us. Now we’re going to spend hundreds of millions of dollars planning for something that, by all estimates, would not be done in the next 30-40 years and could cost upwards of $100 billion? I just think we’re going down the wrong path on this.”

California has been entrenched in completing its own high-speed rail project. Gov. Gavin Newsom said four years ago a bullet train would begin operating in 2030 and cost $22.8 billion. According to CalMatters, a nonprofit news organization covering the state of California, the full system for the high-speed rail now could cost up to $128 billion, leaving a total funding gap of more than $100 billion. You can read the full 2023 update report from the California High-Speed Rail Authority here.

One of the alternatives Barkis proposed is to look at is Amtrak.

“If you look at Amtrak right away, there are areas where you can expand, but more importantly, the technology is changing where you can run multiple trains (on the Amtrak line) and you can phase it,” Barkis told KIRO Newsradio. “By changing grade crossings, that’s where the cars cross over the tracks, putting that infrastructure in place there. You would then have the ability to run this. You’re only talking about anywhere from six to eight trains a day. That is very doable on the existing system with the proper improvement.”

More from Micki Gamez: Community fights Sound Transit’s plan to remove hundreds of trees

Earlier this week, Amtrak and the Washington State Department of Transportation (WSDOT) introduced the first electric bus used as part of the Amtrak network, providing service on the Amtrak Cascades route between Seattle and Bellingham.

Despite Amtrak’s growth, Liias disagrees with the notion that the rail passenger service is the only answer for increasing efficient public transportation.

“I totally support improving Amtrak and we want to get back to hourly daylight service like we had before the pandemic to Portland and Vancouver,” Liias said. “The fact of the matter though, is to meet the future growth in the region. Amtrak alone is not going to get us there. We need more. We need more air. We need more highways. We ignore rail capacity. … It’s part of an overall strategy to make sure that as we look out 20 or 30 years that we’re continuing to keep up with growth and plan for the people that are coming here in the future.”

State models and forecasts showed potentially millions of passengers might not be accommodated at Seattle-Tacoma International Airport (SEA) due to a lack of capacity by 2050 — another example of the Puget Sound region outgrowing its current capacity. A new workgroup continues to examine potential sites for a new airport in the South Sound after the Commercial Aviation Commission was disbanded.

More on Washington’s search for a new airport: Commission preparing for fallout if new location isn’t found

In a similar conundrum, transportation experts are trying to locate where the bullet train tracks would live. But once a plan is in place and finalized, that’s when Barkis believes the lawsuits will ensue.

“We just went through a process, because (SEA) is going to reach capacity,” Barkis said. “We had this whole process about looking for a new place for an airport. The resistance, the opposition was so fierce to not locate (a new site) in a couple of different areas, that we had to do legislation to start the whole process over again. people were like, ‘There’s no way you’re going to build an airport in our backyard.'”

“So let’s think about what’s going to be needed to put this high-speed rail down,” Barkis continued. “Where are we going to do this? The minute that line hits a map, and people see where this thing is going to go, you’ll have every kind of group you can imagine forming an opposition, and you’ll have litigation and lawsuits, just like in California.”

If the bullet train moves forward in Washington, Liias hopes WSDOT and the state’s legislators do things differently than the way the process unfolded in California.

“We can pursue a public-private partnership model like we’ve seen in the European countries and in Asia, where it’s not just the government and just the taxpayers alone building this infrastructure, but that we leverage the power of the marketplace,” Liias told KIRO Newsradio. “The power of private partnership to bring more resources. California chose not to do that. They chose to go the taxpayer finance route alone and I think we need to take a look at other models that get more than just taxpayer dollars in there to help finance and build this …”

Frank Sumrall is an editor for MyNorthwest.com and Micki Gamez is a transportation and traffic reporter for KIRO Newsradio. Follow Micki on X, formerly known as Twitter, or email her here.

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Opposing politicians clash over potential multi-billion dollar bullet train