Politics & Government

Less than an hour between Seattle and Portland? New report says it’s possible

Bidding farewell to Interstate 5 and airports, people in 2040 could travel between Seattle, Portland, and Vancouver, British Columbia at speeds over 200 mph on high-speed rail, magnetic levitation or hyperloop technology, according to a study released Monday.

“The ability to travel each segment between Seattle, Portland, and Vancouver, B.C. in less than an hour will revolutionize the way we live, work, and play in the Pacific Northwest,” Gov. Jay Inslee said in a written statement. “Moreover, it helps us preserve the natural beauty and health of our region by enabling faster, cleaner and greener trips between our region’s largest cities.”

It’s unclear when a final decision will be made on whether to go ahead with the project, said Janet Matkin, a spokeswoman for the state Department of Transportation, which released the 400-page study by consultant WSP.

Unanswered questions include the exact route and the type of ultra-high-speed transportation.

All of the trips would include a stop in Vancouver, B.C., the Seattle metropolitan area and Portland. Express trips would consist of those three destinations. There also would be trips that could include stops in other cities, including Tacoma, Olympia, Bellingham, Everett, Bellevue/Redmond, Tukwila, Kelso/Longview and Surrey, B.C. The study examined from 21 to 30 daily round trips, with express service available every hour.

The construction cost is estimated up to $42 billion, with a mixture of public and private dollars envisioned.

“I compare this to building an entire new I-5 spine in the region, except one that is faster, more reliable and more environmentally-friendly,” Matkin said.

Magnetic levitation trains use powerful electromagnets to hover just above the track and move forward, eliminating friction from metal wheels on tracks. Hyperloop technology would carry passengers in pods through tubes or tunnels. Instead of using wheels like a train, the pods would float on air skis or use magnetic levitation to reduce friction.

Passenger revenue could generate up to $250 million in 2040 and cover the entire operating cost per year if revenue is 10 percent higher or costs are the same percentage lower, said the study’s consultant, WSP.

A preliminary look at the potential fare is 52 cents per mile. That would translate into roughly a $157 round-trip ticket from Tacoma to Portland.

WSDOT has estimated that adding a lane in each direction of I-5 in Washington would cost about $108 billion in 2018 dollars.

“Current plans for expansion at the region’s airports may not be sufficient to accommodate an expected doubling of demand,” the study said. “Amtrak’s Cascades rail service shares an alignment with freight rail and Sounder transit operations, which limits the opportunity to reduce travel times and improve frequencies.”

WSDOT said the system would be all-electric and would not share or rely on existing infrastructure, such as rail lines. There would not be any at-grade crossings with roads and it would include some tunnels and elevated tracks.

In the first 40 years of operation, the project would reduce carbon emissions by 6 million metric tons as a result of 27 million avoided flight miles and 6.1 billion avoided private vehicle miles, said Matkin, the state transportation department spokeswoman. In addition, an average of more 960 metric tons of harmful non-CO2 pollutants — particulate matter, carbon monoxide and nitrogen oxide — would be kept out of the ecosystem annually.

Inslee said in a written statement that the study “provides even greater confidence that an ultra-high-speed ground transportation system in the Pacific Northwest is worth the investment.”

He added: “Let’s make this happen!”

Oregon Gov. Kate Brown and British Columbia Premier John Horgan also issued written statements Monday in support.

Supporters are focusing on the potential economic growth that could be created.

According to the study, average wage growth in Vancouver, B.C., Seattle and Portland has increased about 20 percent since 2010, but housing costs have climbed by 60 percent or more, which is nearly twice the North America rate.

The project “can foster more dense transit-oriented residential development near stations and open up new areas to large-scale, mixed-use development where residential and office development can be built in close proximity. (The project) can increase housing supply and help create live-work communities with complementary changes in land-use policies,” the study said.

The next steps include representatives from Washington, Oregon and British Columbia studying how the project would be governed and whether changes to laws, regulations and/or agreements are needed to proceed with development.

The Washington state Legislature provided $224,000 in the current two-year budget to study the project, with the requirement that an additional $671,000 had to come from other sources. Oregon and British Columbia have committed to spend about $500,000, with the private sector possibly providing the rest. Microsoft Corp. contributed $300,000 for the study released Monday.

State Rep. Jake Fey, a Tacoma Democrat who is chairman of the House Transportation Committee, said he hopes the next phase of the study addresses how to finance the project, given Washington’s need for funding to maintain its existing transportation infrastructure.

“If you can’t see how you’re going to pay for it, then it’s hard to conceive of doing a project of this magnitude. On the face of it, you can’t hardly imagine how this would be solely a public investment. The private sector has got to be contributing significantly to making something like this happen,” Fey said. “I don’t want to be a person who wants to throw water on big ideas, and this is a very big idea.

“And so inching along, as we have been looking at this, seems appropriate. We’ve got a lot of challenges out there in our transportation system already, like replacing the (I-5) bridge going across the Columbia River. Everything is within the context of what other needs you have.”

James Drew covers the state Legislature and state government for McClatchy’s Washington papers: The News Tribune, The Olympian, The Bellingham Herald and The Tri-City Herald.