'Astronomical' Cost Estimate For Portland-Seattle-Vancouver Bullet Train

Dec 14, 2017

A brand new feasibility study of bullet train service between Portland, Seattle and Vancouver, BC, puts a sky-high price tag on construction costs. But Washington Gov. Jay Inslee signaled he's not deterred and is asking the Legislature to pay for further study.

A consultant hired by Washington state Department of Transportation examined several different train technologies that could whisk you along the I-5 corridor at 250 miles per hour or faster. The options reviewed include: high speed rail as found in Europe and East Asia; even faster magnetic levitation—or maglev—trains in limited use in Asia; and the still conceptual Hyperloop, which involves passenger capsules propelled through tubes or tunnels maintained in partial vacuum. 

Consultant Scott Richman of the firm CH2M pegged the ballpark cost to acquire right-of-way and build a system at between $24 billion to $42 billion, which even he called "astronomical." 

"This assumed a substantial amount of tunneling,” Richman said. “That high end could come down if we reduced the amount of tunneling." 

Richman and the state's rail director told a panel of state lawmakers Thursday that private investors might be enticed to shoulder some of the costs. Legislative committee leaders appeared nearly dumbstruck by the study results. 

The five month feasibility study was paid for with $300,000 in state taxpayer dollars. Microsoft contributed $50,000 and construction trade unions kicked in $10,000 to perform additional economic analysis, which is still in progress. 

On Thursday, Inslee asked state legislators to allocate a fresh $3.6 million to continue studying ultra-high speed rail, including hiring a consultant to develop the "business case analysis." The spending request was part of a supplemental budget proposal that lawmakers will consider during their short 2018 session, which convenes next month. 

"You have a finite amount of money to address transportation. Do we need to spend part of that on more studies that are going to sit in a drawer and 10 years from now won't be worth the paper they're written on?" Republican state Sen. Curtis King asked rhetorically. "From my standpoint, I would be hard pressed to put more money into a study on technologies and a project that is so expensive that no one knows how they are going to pay for it." 

State House Transportation Committee Chair Judy Clibborn, a Democrat, was unsure about whether she would support the governor's request for a deeper study of bullet train service. 

"It's something so far out that is hard to spend a whole bunch of money," Clibborn said in an interview Thursday. "The partnership that he brings to the table with the private sector is the thing that makes or breaks it." 

Coincidentally, long-planned upgrades to existing Amtrak Cascades service roll out next week. The new Amtrak Cascades schedule that begins Monday includes two additional daily round trips between Seattle and Portland. The current Amtrak schedule has five daily departures in each direction in the corridor, some of which extend to Vancouver, BC, and Eugene, Oregon. 

In addition, beginning Monday Amtrak will permanently reroute its passenger trains on the stretch between DuPont and Tacoma to run adjacent to Interstate 5. The new corridor is less scenic than the old waterside route, but more direct. That change combined with other upgrades shave 20 minutes off the scheduled travel time between Portland and Seattle. 

The maximum speed of Amtrak passenger trains in the Pacific Northwest of 79 miles per hour does not change with the new schedule and infrastructure.