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Experts, officials meet at Microsoft HQ to discuss high-speed rail between Vancouver and U.S.

Experts from around the world are in Seattle to discuss the future of high-speed rail between B.C. and Washington State. Ted Chernecki reports.

A proposed high-speed rail line is getting another boost in support this week as business leaders, government officials and experts meet in Seattle to discuss a possible high-speed rail line between B.C. and Oregon.

The three-day Cascadia Rail Summit began Wednesday at Microsoft’s headquarters in Redmond, Wash., inviting more than a dozen speakers to discuss the long-in-the-works project.

Those speakers made the case that the rail line would have nothing but positive impacts on the Pacific Northwest, tying the region’s economic interests together while helping improve housing affordability in both Vancouver and Seattle.

READ MORE: Vancouver-Portland ultra-fast train could be self-sustaining by 2055 or earlier: Study

“In order to tie Vancouver and British Columbia up with its neighbours, and to link its economy with the rest of the region and the world, it’s about transportation,” SNCF America spokesperson Jerry Ray said.

“I think it is inevitable that you’re going to do it.”

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Major benefits

A high-speed rail corridor has long been discussed between the three major cities in Cascadia, providing travellers with a potential one-hour trip between Vancouver and Seattle.

The train would be capable of travelling up to 400 kilometres an hour and would encourage drivers to get off the road.

In 2018, B.C. contributed $300,000 to a Washington State Department of Transportation study, which examined whether such a project could attract enough riders and generate sufficient revenue.

New report touts benefits of Vancouver-Seattle-Portland high-speed rail
New report touts benefits of Vancouver-Seattle-Portland high-speed rail

That study, released in July, found that the project could attract between 1.7 million and three million annual trips by 2040 and generate between US$156 million and US$250 million in fare revenues, making it “one of the best performing rail services in North America.”

That would be enough to cover costs by 2055, according to the study, which also said a 10 per cent boost in ridership coupled with a 10 per cent decrease in operating costs could make it self-sustaining by 2040.

Microsoft co-hosting the summit at its headquarters was no accident. The software giant has kicked in $573,667 to various feasibility studies, including the Washington state study and an upcoming one from the Cascadia Innovation Corridor.

READ MORE: B.C. government jumping on board high speed rail case study

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The company’s government affairs director Irene Plenefisch said the project would allow workers across industries to live farther out from major cities, potentially cooling those major real estate markets.

“We see this as an opportunity to address those issues, to enable people to … commute into their work without getting into single-occupancy vehicles and incurring the negative environmental affects that result from that kind of travel,” she said.

Keith Baldrey on comparable costs of high-speed rail
Keith Baldrey on comparable costs of high-speed rail

Anthony Perl, a professor of urban studies at Simon Fraser University, said it would also give further opportunities to B.C. tech workers and allow that industry to grow exponentially.

“[It] would connect us to some of the high-tech, knowledge-based, growth-oriented future that is really more sustainable, as we see when we look around British Columbia to the extraction of non-renewable resources,” he said.

Funding in limbo

The Washington state study says design and detailed route planning remains years away, with construction imagined between 2027 and 2034.

It also found the project could be completed for between US$24 billion and US$42 billion, as estimated in a prior 2017 feasibility study.

The cost pales in comparison to the estimated $108 billion cost of adding just one lane in each direction on Interstate 5 through Washington state.

New report touts benefits of Vancouver-Seattle-Portland high-speed rail
New report touts benefits of Vancouver-Seattle-Portland high-speed rail

But how to pay for the rail project continues to be in flux, and was thrown a new curveball this week after Washington state voters approved an initiative capping a major source of transit revenue.

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I-976 caps vehicle registration fees in the state, also known as “car tabs,” at $30 — bringing them down from up to $80 in some areas, including Seattle.

The result immediately prompted Washington Gov. Jay Inslee to order the postponement of any transit projects not already underway.

READ MORE: Washington state governor optimistic about high-speed rail between Seattle and Vancouver

The state’s budget office estimates the passage of I-976 will eliminate more than $4 billion in tax revenue by 2025.

That revenue was counted on to help pay for a $54 billion mass transit expansion approved by voters in 2016, which includes light rail throughout Puget Sound.

The B.C. government mentioned the project in its most recent Throne Speech as one it is continuing to work on with Washington state’s government.

—With files from Ted Chernecki, Simon Little and King5 News