The recent news that the Washington State Department of Transportation did not receive the $198 million it requested from the Federal Railroad Administration for its ultra-high-speed rail project is actually good news for rail transport in Washington. This gives Washington the opportunity to adjust course and save from hundreds of millions to many billions of dollars by getting back on the sensible track of implementing the Long Range Plan for the Amtrak Cascades. Hopefully, our governor and Legislature will seize this opportunity.

For years, the public and Legislature have been told that the Long Range Plan was a theoretical exercise, not an actual plan. It was said that BNSF would never agree to the corridor improvements and higher speed limits outlined in the plan. Last year, the Washington State Department of Transportation started an entirely new process of creating a Service Development Plan with a 20-year vision for the Amtrak Cascades corridor, while pumping millions into the Ultra project. Something seemed amiss.

Through the Freedom of Information Act, Solutionary Rail — a group advocating for track modernization, electrification and better transmission infrastructure —  obtained a copy of the 20-year Master Agreement between WSDOT and BNSF for implementing the corridor improvements described in the Amtrak Cascades plan. It was clearly not a theoretical exercise, but an actual plan developed by the now-dismantled WSDOT Rail Office, accompanied by a detailed agreement that was neglected for a decade and allowed to expire on June 30.

The Amtrak plan and the Master Agreement list multiple sections of dedicated passenger track with speeds up to 110 mph. The Master Agreement describes in detail the terms for implementing improvements with the goal of at least 13 round-trip journeys a day between Seattle and Portland and five round-trips a day between Seattle and Vancouver, B.C. These shorter travel times of 2.5 and 2.7 hours respectively were agreed to so the Amtrak Cascades could be competitive with driving or flying. The extra capacity of dedicated track with higher speeds guaranteed that trains would be reliable, convenient and on time. It is a plan for achieving both freight fluidity to draw trucks off the roads and superior rail service to reduce the number of cars on Interstate 5. 

In 2009, WSDOT applied for and received $91 million from the Obama-era American Recovery & Reinvestment Act. That application used shovel-ready projects from the Amtrak plan. Why did the process stop? Politics and special interests intervened, distracting the public and policymakers with Ultra High Speed Ground Transportation, with its projected speeds of 250 mph but few other details.

Recent scrutiny of the UltraHS promotional studies presented to the Washington Legislature’s Joint Transportation Committee revealed a timeline that is too long (decades, not years), a price tag that is too steep ($150 billion) to justify, and inflated ridership revenue that would in reality be inadequate to justify the capital and operating costs. It is the very definition of a boondoggle.

After obtaining the Master Agreement, Solutionary Rail, 14 other organizations and hundreds of Washingtonians appealed to the railroad administration to deny WSDOT’s request and urge the agency to set aside Ultra and concentrate on common sense high-speed rail.

The rediscovery of the Master Agreement, the scrutiny of the report to the JTC and now the denial of the federal funds for planning the Ultra project are all reality checks and a chance to course-correct. It is time to take the “Ultra” out of our pursuit of high-speed rail and get back on track with the original Long Range Plan to deliver common sense, high-speed rail at a fraction of the cost and a third of the time. 

The state Legislature set aside $50 million in matching funds for the UltraHSR application. Those funds should be repurposed to get the Amtrak plan projects shovel-ready. Our state got the chance to dodge a bullet-train boondoggle. Let’s not squander it. It is up to our leaders to finally deliver common sense, higher-speed rail on a timeline that is relevant to meeting climate goals and improving mobility at a price we can afford.