Anyone who has ever driven through Seattle is familiar with the daily congestion, made worse by rush hour or game day traffic.
The Washington State Department of Transportation (WSDOT) released a study on July 15 detailing one possible solution to the gridlock: ultra-high-speed transportation, which would connect major cities on the West Coast. A trip from Seattle to either Portland or Vancouver, B.C. could take as little as one hour.
According to the study, 200,000 new jobs could be created and six million metric tons of carbon emissions could be reduced. By a 2017 estimate, the project could cost between $24 billion and $42 billion, but could create $355 billion in economic growth.
Ultra-high-speed transportation could be possible with the use of hyperloop technology, a vacuum system which enables a lack of air resistance.
Lloyd Flem, executive director of advocacy group All Aboard Washington (AAWA), regards hyperloop technology as more fantasy than fact, a sort of Popular Science cover story.
“It could happen; it could be good; it could be of interest, but at this time I see it as an extremely exotic and expensive technology,” Flem said. “Faster commercial trains, more dependable ones – that’s the thing we’re going to be focusing on while supporting, at the same time, the idea of these high-speed trains.”
If enough research in the public and private sectors is completed, Flem said it’s a possibility that hyperloop technology could emerge within 20 to 25 years. But at 80 years old, he expects it’s more likely ultra-high-speed trains will be a reality for his grandchildren to see.
Louis Musso III, vice president of AAWA, agrees about improving the existing track. He said that a high-speed rail would require a new, dedicated track, and then the issue becomes where to put it.
Musso believes multiple stops on conventional railways would be more beneficial to residents living in smaller cities. He said this can be done affordably with perfected technology within a timeframe not measured in decades.
“We need a feeder system just as much as a single point-to-point super-high-speed,” Musso said. “I just hope the [hyperloop] studies are being done with the right kind of healthy skepticism.”
Bruce Agnew, director of the Cascadia Center, believes hyperloop technology is still in the early stages.
“The challenge with hyperloop is that it’s not proven yet,” Agnew said. “From what I understand, there are places around the country that are studying it.”
He believes more studies on hyperloop technology could be completed within five years, but he doesn’t foresee these fast trains existing within the next 10 years. Addressing bottlenecks on the current rail in Vancouver and figuring out where to align an ultra-speed rail are paramount issues.
As for the high-speed rail, it will require much more investment, he said. He cautioned against studies which give costs but no real solutions.
“The only way this is going to go forward is if there’s consistent political support and there’s a government structure that has the power and the ability to address acquisition of the real estate, financing and permitting,” Agnew said.
WSDOT’s study will be one of the topics discussed at an upcoming regional rail conference. The North Sound Transportation Alliance (NSTA) is hosting a conference on Friday, September 13 from 9 a.m. to noon at Skagit Station, 105 East Kincaid Street, Mt. Vernon. NSTA is a coalition of citizens, elected officials and professional staff of transportation agencies from Whatcom, Skagit, Island, San Juan and Snohomish counties.
The conference will include an in-depth discussion of passenger rail issues affecting the region. Those interested in attending are requested to RSVP by contacting Melissa Fanucci, principal planner with the Whatcom Council of Governments, at firstname.lastname@example.org or 360/685-8385.