If a Portland businessperson traveled to Seattle today by Amtrak train, the average speed would be just 42 miles an hour. Sure, you could fly there much faster, but with the pre-flight check in and the drive from Sea-Tac airport, it wouldn't be so efficient either. Then there's driving, an inefficient single-use car trip that clogs up the highways and takes over three hours too.
It's no wonder many would love to see high-speed rail in the Pacific Northwest receive funding. From economic benefits to cultural ones, having improved infrastructure and the chance to move between cities quickly and easily can only help. It's not an inexpensive endeavor, but high speed rail will more than pay for itself over time.
The recent elections that gave Republicans a majority in the US House of Representatives could hurt chances for fast trains. The party, tight-fisted about non-military spending outlays, would be unlikely to approve big funds for rail on its own if it had a bicameral majority. But the GOP does not have the Senate or occupy 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, so this is not 1994-96 or 2000-2008 redux.
Besides, not all Republicans are against high speed rail. For example, Representative John Mica of Florida, the senior Republican in line to take the reins of the House Transportation Committee in January, is a proponent. "But it has to be where it makes sense,” Mica told The Associated Press in a post-election interview. “The administration squandered the money, giving it to dozens and dozens of projects that were marginal at best."
Mica would rather see the money focused on a few key high-density areas like the Northeast, where the Amtrak Acela already acts as the nation's only high-speed rail line, between Boston and Washington via New York. But there are other officially 11 designated "mega regions" where clusters of close cities make the cost of high speed rail justifiable.
And Mica's GOP colleagues may be making it easier to single out which mega-regions in the United States first get fast trains. Newly elected right-wing governors in Wisconsin and Ohio have pledged to reject their portions of an upper midwest line linking with Chicago, and the same may be happening to a Florida line between Tampa and Orlando. That resistance could make other states and regions planning high speed rail lines, such as California, Texas and the Pacific Northwest, better able to compete for those federal rail-building dollars. That's particularly the case given that Oregon saw Democrat John Kitzhaber defeat Republican Chris Dudley; Kitz is surely more likely to support the rail investment, just as Jerry Brown will be in California now that he's defeated Meg Whitman.
As reported by the Daily Journal of Commerce, on October 28 the Oregon and Washington departments of transportation received an additional $26.5 million in grants for development of a high-speed rail line between Eugene and Vancouver, British Columbia. The U.S. Department of Transportation announced the award as part of $2.4 billion for high-speed rail development projects around the country. Planning and environmental studies on the potential Eugene-to-Portland rail corridor will be performed with $4.2 million of the award, including an overhaul of the state’s overall passenger rail plan. Another $4 million will go toward a preliminary engineering and environmental study on potential renovations and track improvements at Portland’s historic Union Station to prepare the structure for future high-speed rail. This award adds to grant funds Oregon and Washington DOTs received in 2009 from the US Department of Transportation for high-speed rail projects.
The state estimates the cost of the Northwest rail project at about $2 billion on either one of two likely routes skirting Interstate 5. As much as $1.6 billion of that could be secured through federal funds, according to the transportation department, leaving at least $400 million in state money needed to make it happen.
Obviously in a time of unemployment and budget deficits, spending billions on anything must be justified by the improvements to the economy and culture they bring. But unlike the backlash we've had against highway funding, which arguably only contributes to sprawl and global warming, high speed rail is in keeping with the more sustainable, low-carbon future toward which the world is heading. Just ask the Chinese, who have nearly seven thousand kilometers of high speed rail lines under construction.
By no means is high-speed rail between Eugene and Vancouver, BC a done deal. But in an increasingly borderless global economy, we can not afford for travel between Portland and its closest big-city neighbors be restricted by slow, expensive, inefficient options. That only becomes truer in light of the fact that the nation's demographics are shifting. More Americans living in cities where they do not have family means more trips home, which require more transportation options than just planes and automobiles.
It's ironic that the Portland area has long been embroiled in a debate about huge federally funded transportation project, the Columbia River Crossing bridge, but one that has virtually nothing to do with high speed rail. Instead of worrying about 12 lanes or 10 for the bridge, why not forget the whole thing and embrace the fast train instead? Usually we can't take federal dollars intended for one transit mode and exchange them for another, but it's not unheard of in Portland. We once rejected the Mount Hood Freeway and were able to use the funds for the first MAX light rail line. Why not make the Columbia River Crossing a Pacific Northwest Crossing? High speed rail has the opportunity to help vastly more people cover much more terrain for less per-capita cost. It's just the kind of pioneering move we've been known for in the past and could be again.