Ultra-High Speed Boondoggle

Gov. Inslee supports Ultra-High Speed Boondoggle of the “Well-heeled,” while ignoring a realistic rail proposal designed to serve all Washingtonians

By Bill Moyer

The concept of a Cascades high-speed rail corridor is once again coming to the fore. Two very different proposals are on the table in Washington State. One, Solutionary Rail lays out a feasible, cost-effective pathway to rail service at significantly higher speeds. The other proposes an astronomically expensive Northwest bullet train unlikely to produce anything but another study for the shelf. Unfortunately, it is the latter that has mysteriously gained traction with Gov. Inslee.

The ultra-high speed dream scheme is a 200-250mph Seattle-Vancouver, BC line serving passenger traffic only and requiring “green-fielding” new corridor. WSP-USA, formerly called WSP/Parsons Brinckerhoff is the engineering firm that authored the proposal. Even they estimate the cost to be a mind-numbing $125 million to $1 billion per mile.

The Legislature began funding high-speed rail studies around 1990. Those studies found that direct traffic between Seattle and Vancouver does not justify a dedicated high-speed line. With smaller community stops needed to make the line practical, studies found the optimal speed is 110mph. (See supplemental references below this article.

The Solutionary Rail strategy was created by a group of national rail experts convened to address the need to shift rail’s business model away from dependence on shipping heavy and often dangerous commodities. It proposes a strategy for returning high value freight to the tracks and beneficial rail service to all our communities.

Solutionary Rail proposes electrifying and modernizing existing freight rail lines.  Express freight would run at up to 80mph. Passenger trains would achieve the speeds of 100-125mph determined optimal by previous study.  Drawing high value freight off of trucks and back to more efficient tracks reduces costly infrastructure wear and tear, pollution, carbon emissions, and highway deaths. Solutionary Rail proposes powering these electrified freight and passenger trains with renewable energy and using rail corridors for transmission of renewable energy from currently stranded wind and solar assets. 

Solutionary Rail even proposes an innovative financing mechanism, an interstate body called the Steel Interstate Development Authority (SIDA). The SIDA would leverage the capacity of public entities to raise low-cost capital, overcoming upfront capitalization and other barriers that have hindered U.S. rail electrification. Solutionary Rail electrification comes in at a reasonable cost of $2-2.5 million/mile. There would be significant additional modernization and transmission expenses, but nothing like the $125 million per mile minimum of the bullet train.

Charles Knutson, former Manager of Marketing and Governmental Affairs at WSP/Parsons Brinckerhoff now serves as Governor Inslee’s Transportation advisor. Knutson’s testimony to the Senate Transportation Committee last year provided a bizarre justification for spending $1 million of scarce taxpayer dollars on a feasibility study. “What is unique about today,” Knutson said, “is that you’re getting well-heeled technology executives willing to see this go forward.”

Why those “well-heeled” - including Bill Gates - were asking Washington tax-payers for $1 million to study a scheme that has already been studied is beyond comprehension. That the public servant making “the ask” (and guarding the gate to Governor Inslee) is actually a former employee of the corporate beneficiary, is frankly suspect.

Fortunately, the House Transportation Committee halved the Governor's request.  Their Senate counterpart axed it entirely. Eventually, the Transportation budgets were reconciled, and the WSP/Inslee/Gates boondoggle was given only $300k. But that was $300k too much.  That money that would have been far better spent studying the far more realistic Solutionary Rail proposal.

But now, in the 2018 session, they are coming back for $3.6 million more!  See the Governor's supplemental transportation budget here.

As a co-author of the Solutionary Rail book and strategy I can attest to the inaccessibility of Governor Inslee. He seems to have been insulated from our broadly beneficial proposal by either his advisors, his own biases, or possibly his future political aspirations. The Governor's office has ignored repeated pleas for leadership by our team, petition signers from across the state, and even the Washington State Labor Council and Sierra Club of Washington each of which have passed resolutions urging the Governor and legislature to study the feasibility Solutionary Rail. 

Public support for Solutionary Rail is growing. Now, it is time for trans-partisan leadership from the Legislature. Please join us in urging the House and Senate Transportation committees to intercept any further funds on behalf of the “well-heeled” and their consultants and instead allocate them to study the feasibility of the Solutionary Rail strategy, one intentionally designed to serve us all.

Bill Moyer
Solutionary Rail


1. Access the draft Solutionary Rail feasibility study proviso here

2. Here's more from past rail studies related to 110MPH optimal speed.  Solutionary Rail technical team listed the page numbers and more below.  This demonstrates that the Governor's (Microsoft/WSP-Parsons Brinckerhoff vision for ultra high speed rail) is a waste of time and money. 
 
This Google Folder to find the documents referred to below.  
https://drive.google.com/drive/folders/1EKF1HRgzooqtxZ5CHf5DbioE6CPBuTAc?usp=sharing
 
From my source:
The first volume is the plan description. It describes the plan in detail in text and tables. The plan description is derived from the seven technical documents. The main document is still available on the WSDOT website, but the technical papers are not.

In Vol 1 Operating and Infrastructure Plan.pdf you will find a complete history of the development of the program: Appendix A pages A-5 - A-34. This body of work was not a case of several studies of the same thing. As the program progressed, each work became the basis for the next work, increasing the details.

The legislature commissioned work on high speed ground transportation in Washington in 1984. The result was that for many reasons, the high speed trains that we in the US call bullet trains did not make sense for Washington. Before the final report was completed, the Legislature followed that advice and commissioned work on the incremental improvement, medium-high speed service. That work continued through 2007, culminating in the report to which I have included the link. The work in this plan was the basis for the $800 million ARRA grant that Washington received.

In the main document, Long Range Plan for Amtrak Cascades.pdf, 
110 mph speed is discussed on:
1-7, 4-3, 5-7, 5-9, 5-10, 5-18, 5-21, 5-22, 5-30, 5-31, A-13, A-17, A-21
Service north of Seattle is discussed on:
3-3, 3-4, 3-5, 3-6, 3-8, 3-9, 3-11, 3-12, 4-13, 4-14, 4-15 ,5-7 -- 5-12, 5-30, 5-32, A-1, A-4, A-7, A-8, A-11, A-12, A-15, A-16, A-19, A-20, B-4, B-5D-18 -- 26, Appendix E

In In Vol 1 Operating and Infrastructure Plan.pdf
110 mph speed is discussed on:
2-12, 2-13, 4-12, 4-18, 4-33, 4-36, 4-37, 4-38, 4-41, 4-42, 4-45, 4-46, 4-47

The timetables for the planned service between Vancouver BC and Everett are on pages H-1, H-5, H-9, H-13, H-17, H-21, I-1

The plan includes integration with Sounder commuter service. Examples of the integrated service are found on G-27, G-31, G39, G-40, G-48, G-49, G-56, G-57, G-63, G-64.

There is yet more detail in the volumes. Cost information, a decade old, is, of course, currently obsolete. The projects that have been constructed with the ARRA grant and the associated service does not match the plan as it was necessary to go outside of the phasing and modify some projects to make best use of the available funds.

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