Looming cuts to transit cast doubt on Microsoft’s vision for Seattle-Vancouver high-speed rail

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King County Executive Dow Constantine pleads the case for high-speed rail at a conference hosted by Microsoft. (GeekWire Photo / Monica Nickelsburg)

Microsoft’s aspiration to build one of America’s first high-speed rail lines in the Pacific Northwest hit a speed bump this week as Washington state voters pumped the brakes on other ambitious transportation projects.

An initiative passing comfortably in the latest ballot count puts some of Washington’s boldest transit plans in jeopardy. And while Washington officials pledge to find other sources of funding to continue building out the state’s transportation network, Initiative 976 could become a cautionary tale for leaders pushing for a high-speed rail line connecting the Pacific Northwest’s largest cities.

I-976 was an inescapable topic of conversation Thursday at the Cascadia Rail Summit, a conference hosted at Microsoft’s headquarters in Redmond, Wash., in partnership with the U.S. High Speed Rail Association. The event was Microsoft’s latest attempt to build enthusiasm for a high-speed rail line that would make it possible to travel from Seattle to Vancouver, B.C., in under an hour.

Microsoft has spent more than $570,000 to fund feasibility studies for high-speed rail in the Pacific Northwest. The hope is that increasing mobility between Portland, Seattle, and Vancouver will help “Cascadia” develop into a mega-region akin to Silicon Valley.

“Europe and Asia figured this out a long time ago,” Washington Gov. Jay Inslee told the Cascadia Rail Summit via video stream. “Japan has had this technology for over 50 years … the United States has been slower to adapt but there are encouraging signals and the looming threat of climate change is driving us to quick action.”

Japan’s Shinkansen bullet train. (BigStock Photo)

The plan has support from leaders in Oregon, Washington, and British Columbia but it’s still an uphill battle, especially in light of the cuts to transportation funding voters in Washington approved this week.

I-976 caps vehicle registration fees in Washington state at $30. Tim Eyman, a prolific initiative sponsor, introduced I-976 in response to increases in registration fees that were implemented as part of Sound Transit 3. Voters approved ST3 in 2016 to dramatically expand public transit service in Washington’s Pierce, King, and Snohomish counties to the tune of $54 billion. The plan expands light rail service throughout Seattle and nearby Everett over the next 25 years.

“I like to think of Sound Transit 3 as a precursor to high-speed rail,” said King County Executive Dow Constantine at the Cascadia Rail Summit. “I mean that politically because the critics and the doubters that we will encounter along the way, on our journey to high-speed rail in Cascadia, will run the same playbook. The same playbook of doubts, the same playbook of concerns that they will offer up to the public and we’ll have to have answers.”

I-976 cuts some of the revenue Sound Transit was counting on to fund ST3. Washington’s Office of Management and Budget estimates the initiative will cause state and local governments to lose $4.2 billion for transportation projects over the next six years.

Inslee has already directed state officials to postpone transportation projects that aren’t already underway.

“What we lack at this moment is a big, bold vision around transportation to unite our people,” said Washington State Sen. Marko Liias at the event Thursday. “It is clear, in the results of Tuesday’s election, that Washingtonians haven’t captured the vision of what our state could be, what our region could be, and how we all have a stake in its future.”

Constantine has asked the county attorney to prepare a lawsuit challenging the constitutionality of I-976. At the conference Thursday, he promised I-976, “will not stop us from building light rail, or ultimately from running our busses, because we will find a way if we have to.”

But Washington voters’ reluctance to fund expensive transit projects calls into question the feasibility of a high-speed rail line that would cost $24 billion to $42 billion, according to Washington State Department of Transportation estimates.

Constantine seemed undaunted by I-976 and reminded the crowd that in 2016, voters did give the green light to ST3, “one of the most ambitious transit expansions the country has ever seen.”

“Funding, planning, and gathering a coalition of the willing,” Constantine said. “That is the formula we used for Sound Transit and that is the formula we need to use as we link together Cascadia with high-speed rail.”

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