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Microsoft leads charge for high speed rail corridor in Pacific Northwest

 

Commuters in the Pacific Northwest love to complain about how slow (and archaic) it is to travel between Portland and Seattle by train. It takes about three and a half hours to traverse the 170-mile distance on the Amtrak Cascades, which runs only four trains per day.

As congestion clogs the I-5 corridor, business and public policy leaders here have long dreamed of a high speed train connecting the so-called Cascadia Innovation Corridor cities: Portland, Seattle and Vancouver, British Columbia.

The dream moved a tad closer to reality last week, when Democrats in Washington State introduced Governor Jay Inslee’s legislation for transportation funding to help create an interstate high-speed rail authority.

The budget proposal reflects growing momentum toward creating a one-hour train service linking cities in the Pacific Northwest.

Last fall Microsoft, the Province of British Columbia, the Oregon Department of Transportation and the Washington State Department of Transportation (WSDOT) dedicated around $1.5 million toward a study examining the business case for a Cascadia bullet train.

The WSDOT is evaluating the costs and ridership impacts of building a railway connecting the three cities,  said Janet Matkin, rail communications lead for the agency. The study is slated for completion in June 2019.

For now, BNSF is watching on the sidelines, said D.J. Mitchell, associate vice president of passenger rail for BNSF. The railroad owns the tracks  on which the Amtrak Cascades operates.

Many people are surprised to learn that  freight behemoth BNSF still moves over 27 million passengers a year in regional passenger rail service that includes Chicago, Seattle and Minneapolis.

In Seattle, the Sounder commuter rail line connecting Seattle and Tacoma is operated by BNSF on behalf of Sound Transit.

The existing Cascades track is not adequate to serve a high speed rail line, Mitchell said.

The Cascadia region is already connected by its “educated and skilled workforce, similar public policies, academic institutions and a culture of innovation,” according to a high speed rail feasibility study released last year. But inadequate transportation services prevent cities in the Pacific Northwest from taking advantage of the collective talent, the report said.

The legislation introduced last week would provide up to $3.25 million in biennial appropriations through 2021 to establish the authority in partnership with the Oregon and Province of British Columbia.

Microsoft’s support for the business case study is the second time the software giant has kicked in money to explore the region’s high speed rail potential. The company paid for the  feasibility analysis, too. It also backed the creation of a new direct seaplane service – the so-called “nerd bird” – between Seattle and Vancouver that began last year.

Amazon did not provide funding for either the feasibility or business case study. The Seattle-based ecommerce company could not be reached for comment.

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Linda Baker, Staff Writer

Linda Baker is a FreightWaves staff reporter based in Portland, Oregon. Her beat includes early-stage VC, freight-tech, mobility and West Coast emissions regulations.
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