Free Minds & Free Markets

Rose-Colored Visions of High-Speed Rail Tempt the Pacific Northwest

Politicians push for a "Cascadia line."

highspeed railInge Hogenbijl/

Portland and Seattle, the two major cities of the Pacific Northwest, are already linked by Amtrak, a major interstate highway, a pair of sizable international airports, and several private bus services. Naturally, area politicians would like a high-speed rail line too.

The idea has been floating around for a while. In 2010, the governors of Oregon, Washington, and California and the premier of British Columbia endorsed high-speed rail as part of their "2030 Vision" for the "mega-region." But in December of last year, a Washington Department of Transportation study cast some cold water on the idea. A regional bullet train, the report concluded, would cost an "astronomical" $24–42 billion to carry just 1.9–2.6 million riders by 2035—a figure the normally pro-rail Seattle Transit Blog called "too low to warrant such a large investment."

Undeterred, Washington Gov. Jay Inslee has called for a more comprehensive study. A bill now working its way through the Washington state House would spend another $3.6 million examining the idea.

Supporting these efforts on the ground is Cascadia Rail, an activist group formed last month. It's pushing for a whole high-speed rail network running from Eugene, Oregon, up to Canada, with a separate connector line out to Spokane, Washington.

"Our goal is clear: a safe, fast, high capacity connection between Cascadia cities," the group declares, replete with a rallying cry of "WE. DESERVE. FASTER."

Cascadia Rail's model is the Seattle Subway coalition, which helped convinced some 56 percent of Seattle-area voters to support a $54 billion Sound Transit 3 expansion of the city's light rail and rapid bus transit lines. It had a little help: The entire Seattle political establishment endorsed the idea, as did engineering firms, building trade unions, and major corporations with large Seattle workforces, such as Amazon and Microsoft—all of whom gave generously to the campaign.

Some media outlets, such as the Portland station KOIN and the urban policy website Next City, have raised safety concerns about high-speed rail after three people died in a December Amtrak derailment near Dupont, Washington. The line had been built with some $180.7 million from High-Speed Intercity Passenger Rail Program.

Cascadia Rail spokesperson Matt Glazewskis waved away such concerns in an interview with KOIN. "We would actually have an exclusive right of way on tracks that are built for high-speed rail," he said, "and you wouldn't have to worry about freight train traffic or crossing busy roads."

That was certainly the vision for California's high-speed rail project, which when first proposed was supposed to zoom between San Francisco and Los Angeles in less than three hours on its own track. Now the project is making use of existing rail lines, meaning that when complete it will putter along at largely conventional speeds. The stark contrast between the promises and reality of California's rail project—which just last month announced a "worst-case scenario" $2.8 billion cost overrun—should serve as a cautionary tale for advocates of high-speed rail.

As should the experience with other rail projects closer to home. Seattle's Lynnwood project—a 8.5-mile light rail extension being built by the regional Sound Transit agency—announced in August that it would be overshooting its $2.1 billion budget by some $500 million.

Far from grappling with these realities, the region's high-speed rail supporters are trumpeting only the rosiest of projections: 30-minute travel between Seattle and Portland, $400 billion in new economic development, a thriving tourist industry in Spokane. It's a pleasant vision. It's not a realistic one.

Photo Credit: Inge Hogenbijl/

Editor's Note: We invite comments and request that they be civil and on-topic. We do not moderate or assume any responsibility for comments, which are owned by the readers who post them. Comments do not represent the views of or Reason Foundation. We reserve the right to delete any comment for any reason at any time. Report abuses.

  • Elias Fakaname||

    What a great way t funnel billions to DNC can msultant types and unions while providing no value t the taxpayer.

  • Hugh Akston||

    Has Seattle got their monorail running again yet?

  • Diane Reynolds (Paul.)||

  • BestUsedCarSales||

    I hate to be too positive about Government, but at least monorails have the advantage of technically not taking space from road traffic.

    My sister visited last weekend for Emerald City Comic-Con. She lives in Dallas. When we were driving through Seattle there are many streets that used to be three lanes, but are now 1 traffic lane, 1 bus lane, and one bike lane. My sister upon seeing the bike lane said, out loud, with true surprise, "Wait, bicyclist get an entire fucking lane here?"

    All this and still Seattle is not considered a good bicycling city.

  • Diane Reynolds (Paul.)||

    OH shit, that was last week? My daughter wanted to go. Don't mention anything, kay? Maybe she'll forget.

  • Diane Reynolds (Paul.)||

    "Wait, bicyclist get an entire fucking lane here?"

    Did she say "bicyclist" singular? Because if she did, her assessment was brilliant.

  • markm23||

    LOL. +10. I often ride a bicycle to work (for the exercise), even in Michigan winters. My route goes through various lightly trafficked city streets in my neighborhood and in an industrial park, connected by a busy street where 4 lanes were turned into 2 lanes, a left-turn lane, and two bike lanes - but I hardly ever see another bicyclist there, even in the best weather.

  • Sugarsail||

    It's not a good bicycling city because it's cold and rains all of the bike lane can solve that.

  • Scarecrow Repair & Chippering||

    What is it with statists and railroads? I get the collective style of transport, but trains? Static, inflexible, ok for bulk cargo transport, but people? People want city centers, suburbs, all over the place, and buses are much better for that. For long distance, airplanes are better, faster, cheaper, less disruptive.

    Did their mommies not lt them play with toy trains? Are they just fascinated with the latest Karl Marx-era technology? I do not understand.

  • Arizona_Guy||

    I think because "Every other developed country" has trains. Because progtopia, AKA Europeland, has trains.

  • Arizona_Guy||

    I think I'll just call it "Argumentum ad Europa"

  • Diane Reynolds (Paul.)||

    Every other "developed country" has large population centers just a few miles from each other. When the next town over is like driving from Lisbon to Zagreb, things are a little tougher.

  • damikesc||

    So, they are calling for MORE urban development in pristine wildlands?

    I'll consider that.

  • Gilbert Martin||

    That's probably it.

    The left seems to think that "because Europe" is the definitive answer that wins any argument about whatever they want to do.

  • Sugarsail||


  • Arizona_Guy||

    From what I've seen of interstate trains in the NE is that it's primarily used by business travelers. Upper middle class to wealthy types.

    Trains are a great of taxing everyone to benefit a very small slice of the population.

  • damikesc||

    Isn't that the modern Left?

    Remember, they are LIVID that some of the richest people in NY and CA might have to pay more taxes and they want the benefits for the poorer members rescinded to help them.

  • Citizen X - #6||

    Nobody suggested adding dedicated bike lanes to that whole stretch of I-5?

  • Diane Reynolds (Paul.)||

  • BestUsedCarSales||

    I don't understand how cyclists are so awful.

  • BYODB||

    They are the convergence of environmentalists, health nuts, elitists, and regressives. They essentially have overlap with every shitty group if you were to make a Venn diagram. People who think a bicycle is a 'vehicle' are living out some bizarre 18th century existence.

  • NotAnotherSkippy||

    The Left is stuck in the 19th century. They want 19th century transportation, 19th century energy production, 19th century political systems, and 19th century population/life spans.

  • Sugarsail||

    yup...their coal powered "electric" cars crack me up. I guess they long for the era of Marx for nostalgic reasons

  • HeteroPatriarch||

    It's what they have in lieu of porn.

  • damikesc||

    Why are PROGRESSIVES so enamored with fucking rail travel?

    I mean, besides the usual "You will be where we say, when we say" thing.

  • Diane Reynolds (Paul.)||

    Because it ties populations into dedicated transportation corridors, chosen by technocrats, and makes it more difficult to escape corrupt political districts. When you can just hop in your car and leave...

  • Sugarsail||

    Same reason Hitler did....easy to send masses of people to their final destination.

  • Diane Reynolds (Paul.)||

    Portland and Seattle, the two major cities of the Pacific Northwest, are already linked by Amtrak

    Well, let's not get ahead of ourselves here. There is A train that runs between the two cities, but as a good friend of mine once said, if you like riding the bus, take the train. This line is shut down... oh, I'll be conservative, and say 9 months out of the year due to mud slides, so they keep buses orbiting 24/7 to pick up the stranded Amtrak passengers.

  • Diane Reynolds (Paul.)||

    "2030 Vision" for the "mega-region."

    Why not a vision for a Maga Region?

  • Arizona_Guy||

    I have friends who want more light rail around the Phoenix metro area. When I point out that it will cost tens of billions of $$, they don't care. That money will come from.... somewhere.

  • damikesc||

    I normally ask my associates who desire that "How much will you personally pay more in taxes to make it happen?". I never get an answer.

  • Arizona_Guy||

    I think I replied along the lines of "what roads and freeways and buses are not going to be maintained to cover the cost of a train."

    No answer.

    People seem to think that gov' spending has no opportunity cost.

  • BestUsedCarSales||

    Didn't get enough of the one weird fucking light rail we got, huh? The one that overran costs, is less useful than the bus, and hurt business all along the path? That one?

  • Arizona_Guy||

    Several years ago I read an interesting article about the light rail.

    A guy ran the numbers, and for the cost of building the light rail and the operating losses, divided by average ridership, you could have just bought every rider a Prius.

  • BYODB||

    Supporting these efforts on the ground is Cascadia Rail, an activist group formed last month. It's pushing for a whole high-speed rail network running from Eugene, Oregon, up to Canada, with a separate connector line out to Spokane, Washington.

    Is it really sane to call groups like these 'activists' when it's almost certain they work for rail conglomerates? I mean, who wakes up in the morning and says 'trains are the one thing I feel strongly about to form a citizen group around'?

  • NotAnotherSkippy||

    We live in a world where words are literally (LITERALLY!) violence, and you question this?

  • Sugarsail||

    I love trains, and have been on every high speed train in the world but they only work economically when there are no other convenient alternatives and have long straight flat geography to join large high density population centers. Otherwise they are slow and expensive and end up being insolvent and have to be continually subsidized. This is just another pseudo-eco boondoggle driven by envious infantile adults that are mad because their brothers in Japan and Europe got toy trains for xmas and they didn't.


Get Reason's print or digital edition before it’s posted online