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Pacific Northwest, California projects take center stage at 2019 annual meeting

March 26, 2019

An ultra-high speed rail system running trains with testing speeds of 250 mph to create a Pacific Northwest megaregion was a key theme of Karen Hedlund’s talk at the Midwest High Speed Rail Association’s annual meeting on March 23.

Hedlund is the National Railroad Strategy Advisor with WSP, a consulting firm that specializes in transportation, and the former Chief Counsel for the Federal Railroad Administration.

The trip between Seattle and Portland on Amtrak’s Cascades line takes about 3.5 hours. The trip will take about an hour on the proposed 220 mph high-speed line, which will also run from Seattle to Vancouver and slash that trip to an hour as well.

The project has broad support and will become the second true high-speed rail project in the nation (after California’s ongoing project). A $1.5 million study to project ridership, costs, and economic impacts will be completed this summer.

The study, conducted by WSP, is funded through a partnership that includes Oregon, Washington, British Columbia, and Microsoft Corp.

A feasibility study in 2017 found that the Pacific Northwest has a talented workforce, strong institutions, and a culture of innovation—but that its weak and antiquated transportation infrastructure blunts those advantages.

That study came about through a strong working relationship between Jay Inslee, Washington’s governor, and Christy Clark, British Columbia’s premier. They agreed to cooperate on making the region into a “technology corridor” with a world-class transportation system.

Strong interest from the private sector has also been key to building momentum for regional high-speed rail.

“Microsoft has really taken the lead on this—including the CEO, who goes around and talks to business groups about the importance of high-speed rail in this region,” Hedlund said. “Because he firmly believes, and his colleagues believe, that high-speed rail will turn these three cities into a megaregion with six million people. And it will allow them to compete on the world stage. There are important companies up there, and important medical institutions up there—all in separate locations, and connected by one of the world’s most congested highways.”

In January, lawmakers in Washington introduced legislation to allocate $3.25 million to create a high-speed rail authority that coordinates and oversees plans for the system.

Hedlund also discussed California’s ongoing high-speed rail project and several takeaways for other regions considering high-speed lines.

She noted that starting construction in the Central Valley—a controversial and often-mocked aspect of the project—makes sense at several levels.

“People ask, ‘Why didn’t it start out in San Francisco or Los Angeles, where all the people live?’ Hedlund said. “Well, that’s also the hardest places to actually build dedicated lines. In the Central Valley, it’s a relatively straight alignment, and there are fewer environmental issues.

“The other reason they started in the Central Valley is the issue of equity. The Central Valley is not this empty place with a lot of almond trees. Agriculture is a huge industry, and there are 4 million people that live there.”

The Central Valley has extremely high rates of unemployment and poverty. High-speed rail will connect workers there to jobs in the Bay Area and other cities along the line. In the meantime, the project employs about 2,000 people and has lowered the unemployment rate to about 10 percent.

The California project also offers a number of lessons, including some key missteps, that the Pacific Northwest and high-speed projects in other regions should learn from, according to Hedlund.

One is that good leadership and a cooperative approach are critical to making high-speed rail a reality. For example, cultivating productive relationships with the freight railroads is vital.Hedlund also noted that “project fatigue” is a danger, since massive infrastructure projects tend to extend across decades. Good leadership can keep stakeholders focused on the long-term payoffs of the heavy upfront investments.

Another lesson is the importance of setting realistic timelines and cost and ridership estimates. Overly optimistic projections have posed a problem in California, where project delays and cost overruns have provoked waves of negative news coverage.

“The worst thing you can do is to come out with an early estimate that’s way off,” Hedlund said. “And that’s something we’re trying to avoid.”

In his opening remarks, MHSRA executive director Rick Harnish also discussed some of the lessons learned from California’s example, both its high-speed rail project and its transportation system broadly.

One thing California has done well—and other states should look to—is the state’s creation of a big-picture plan for integrating the individual segments and creating multiplier effects across the system.

“This is what California just finished, and this is the process they used—let’s go out to 2040 and work our way back, and figure out what we need to do in the short term,” Harnish said.

The 2040 plan, created by the California Department of Transportation, “takes a ‘whole system’ approach of integrating long-range statewide and regional transportation planning documents and programs with the latest tools and technologies,” according to CalTrans. By coordinating local transit systems with railroad schedules, for example, it projects a massive increase in rail and transit ridership compared with uncoordinated schedules.

Coordination “really does create this tipping point, and it changes California’s competitiveness globally,” Harnish said. “Because they’ve created this master plan, they can take pieces and say, if we do this piece differently, how does it impact the service? So they can create different scenarios. This is my top goal for this year—at least for the state of Illinois—to get the legislature to commit to this kind of plan.”

Other MHSRA priorities, according to Harnish, are for Illinois to begin designing a 220 mph high-speed trunk line from Chicago to St. Louis, which will create a tipping point for bringing high-speed rail to the Midwest; and for the legislature to allocate at least $1.5 billion, annually, for rail projects that are ready to go but have been delayed for lack of funds. The projects include new Metra coaches, the Union Station renovation, and construction on the A-2 flyover, which is critical to improving the frequency and reliability of trains running throughout the region.  To learn more about these projects and others, head to our Illinois Fast Track page.