Think Out Loud

What would high speed rail mean for the Pacific Northwest?

By Julie Sabatier (OPB)
Dec. 6, 2021 10:51 p.m. Updated: Dec. 7, 2021 11:13 p.m.

Broadcast: Tuesday, Dec. 7

Cascadia high speed rail planners are aiming for a top speed of 250 mph, considerably faster than the next generation Amtrak Acela train shown here.

Cascadia high speed rail planners are aiming for a top speed of 250 mph, considerably faster than the next generation Amtrak Acela train shown here.

Bill Sikes / AP


What if you could get from Portland to Seattle in an hour? Or from Portland to Vancouver, British Columbia, in two hours? That’s the vision behind the Cascadia Ultra High Speed Ground Transportation project. Former Washington Gov. Chris Gregoire is the CEO of Challenge Seattle. She joins us to talk about the project and where plans stand right now.

The following transcript was created by a computer and edited by a volunteer:

Dave Miller: Last month, the governors of Oregon and Washington, and the Premier of British Columbia, announced that they want to work together to make high speed rail from Vancouver through Seattle to Portland a reality, and they signed a memorandum of understanding to formalize their plans, albeit in a non binding way. There does seem to be more momentum for high speed rail in the US now than we’ve seen in a long time; private and public projects are in the works in Texas, Nevada, and California. A new high speed rail system is up and running in Florida, and the recently passed infrastructure bill has allocated $10 billion dollars for super fast trains.

So what might all of this mean for the northwest? Former Washington governor Chris Gregoire joins me now to answer that question and many more. She is now the CEO of the public policy organization Challenge Seattle, and she’s one of the more vocal champions of high speed rail in the region. Chris Gregoire, welcome to Think Out Loud.

Chris Gregoire: Thank you David. It’s a delight to be with you.

Miller: What’s the problem that you are trying to solve with high speed rail?

Gregoire: Well, we actually live in a mega region which is called Cascadia, from Portland, Oregon, through Washington, to British Columbia. There are eleven mega regions in the country, about 30 in the world. They’re economic engines. In this mega region, we have about 9.1 million people currently. We’re projecting that, by 2050, we will add another four million, the results of which are very clear; we can see as we look at that, we’re going to have the lack of affordable housing, which we are already seeing today. We’re going to have increased traffic congestion, which is plaguing us all today, and we are not going to be able, with our infrastructure right now, to comply with the Paris Accord climate goals.

The idea of ultra high speed transportation is not new globally, but fairly new in the United States. If we want to create the first sustainable mega region in the world, this is a basic infrastructure that will be necessary to make that possible, to ensure affordable housing, to ensure the ability to get where we want to go in a timely, efficient, and affordable way, and to ensure, quite frankly, that the quality of life that has led us to be here is maintained.

Miller: There’s a lot of questions that follow from what you’ve just said, but we can take these in order. Let’s first stick with big picture questions, because I’m curious what your diagnosis is for why, as a country, we are so far behind other industrialized democracies like France or Italy or Japan in terms of high speed rail. Setting aside China, which is its own centralized government example, which I think is less helpful, there are other Western democracies and Asian democracies that have been so far ahead of us for so long. Why is that?

Gregoire: It’s interesting; as a country, having served as governor, I can assure you, we have not, since our early times, really invested in our infrastructure. We have thought it was sufficient. We’ve leaned on it. We’ve not even necessarily maintained it like we should, and we’re paying a dear price now. It’s time for us to look to the future, not let the future overwhelm us, which is what we’ve allowed to happen. As I look at things like the cost of living and so on that’s plaguing us right now, this was all predictable, and yet we didn’t do what was necessary to address those impending problems. Now is the time for us to think big about infrastructure, consistent with the bill the president just signed, and the potential of a second bill, the Build Back Better bill, both of which allow for infrastructure, meaning roads, highways, airports. Those are fundamental if we’re going to be able to maintain ourselves economically, and if we’re going to be able to maintain ourselves in terms of the quality of life we all want.

Miller: I guess I’m still wondering why you think it is that we haven’t done that as a country. You’ve noted that we haven’t kept up with other countries. Why do you think that is?

Gregoire: I think we have just let ourselves fall asleep. We have allowed ourselves to assume that what we have is what we need. I remember back in the time when, in the state of Washington, there was, on the ballot, a measure that would have allowed for really advanced transportation. There were seven initiatives, all six past except for the one dealing with transportation. We said we don’t need it, we don’t want to pay for it, it’s going to be too costly, and therefore we fell asleep. Had we done that, we’d be in a whole different world today, but we are stingy on whether we’re willing to invest. We assume the current is okay. Yet, we have found ourselves crippling our ability to compete globally economically, and also just to afford our people locally the quality of life, and the affordable housing and so on, that they need.

Miller: Can you describe your vision for an ultra high speed network in Cascadia, from Vancouver, British Columbia to Portland, Oregon?

Gregoire: So really the idea is, it may be a rail. Technology is advancing; it may be something more advanced by the time we actually get to the period of construction. Really, to connect Vancouver, British Columbia, to Seattle, to Portland. The governor of Oregon and Congressman DeFazio would like to consider going further, as far as Bend, Oregon. To connect them in the way that, for example, if I were to get on one of these, I could get from Seattle to Portland in less than an hour, and from Seattle to Vancouver, British Columbia in less than an hour. What that would allow us to do is allow people to live well outside of our major metropolitan cities, and enjoy the quality of life and the affordability they want, and yet commute in a timely fashion to get to either work or entertainment or whatever they may want in a manner that is efficient, timely, and affordable. That’s what we see happening around the globe, but, for one reason or another, as we just discussed, we’re well behind.

Time for us to think bold. This is one idea. We’re not saying it’s the only idea, but today no one has come up with an alternative idea about how we can ensure the kind of affordability, quality of life, lack of traffic congestion, and compliance with the Paris Accord goals like this would do.

Miller: Let’s turn to affordability, because that’s something that you brought up earlier, and it’s one of the pieces of this that I have to say, frankly, has been most confusing. A super fast rail line, or, as you said, maybe not a rail line, some other as yet unnamed technology that would connect these three large cities … What’s the connection between that, and housing affordability in the region?

Gregoire: I can’t thank you enough for the question, because I think your confusion is shared by a number of folks. Let’s start with what we’re facing today; more than half of the residents in Cascadia spend more than 30% of their income on housing. Affordability is defined as spending no more than 30%, so we’re already seeing half of the residents from Vancouver, British Columbia to Portland, Oregon having to spend more than what they should in order to have housing. What this would allow is for people, for example, to be able to live outside the city, which is why I think Governor Brown and Congressman DeFazio are suggesting it should go to Bend, Oregon, where people didn’t have to live where skyrocketing housing costs or rental costs are happening, in our major metropolitan cities in the suburban areas, but rather outside.

What’s precluding that now is the traffic congestion. All of that is making it such that people feel like the only way they can work is to work in close proximity, very close proximity to those major metropolitan areas.

Miller: I’ve got to say, I’m still confused by what you’ve just said, because what we’re talking about is something that would look different, according to some estimates. There was a feasibility study done three years ago by the state of Washington, and their understanding was that this kind of high speed rail would basically replace intercity air travel between these cities, and they thought maybe 20% of car trips between these. But if you’re talking about this enabling someone’s ability to live, say, outside of Portland so that they could then theoretically have an easier time getting to Seattle, I frankly don’t understand the connection between that and housing prices in a Portland suburb,

Gregoire: So let me take you to an area that I’m quite familiar with, and I hope you are as well. Mount Vernon, which is basically halfway between Seattle and Vancouver, British Columbia. Housing affordability there is real.

Miller: You mean a lack of housing affordability is real.

Gregoire: No, they have absolute affordable housing.


Miller: Sorry, people can afford to live and to buy houses there?

Gregoire: Absolutely, and yet, their ability to work in, for example, Seattle, or the area around Seattle, is precluded by what it costs for them to get there on a daily basis, both in terms of financial costs and human costs because of how much time they spend on the road. What this would allow is people who can no longer afford to live in Portland or Seattle to be able to live further away, with the quality of life they want, with housing that’s affordable, and yet commute. For example, if we had to stop at Mount Vernon, the ability to commute less than 30 minutes is a far cry from the multiple hours that it takes today. Then what you have is affordable, efficient transportation coupled with the ability to have affordable housing.

Miller: This does get to the tricky question, though, of the number of stops you’re going to you’re envisioning, because the more stops you put, the more everything you’ve been just outlining does start to make sense. It also means that the trip is going to get longer and longer because you have to slow down, stop, let more people on, then slowly get back up to speed, and obviously that’s just the way basic trains work and the fastest trains don’t have that many stops. This whole time, I’ve been assuming it would be Portland to Seattle to Vancouver but are you envisioning Olympia as well? And Vancouver, Washington as well? How many stops are you thinking about?

Gregoire: I would suspect no and no to Olympia and Vancouver, Washington. When the proximity to Portland is so close, the answer would be no. You are spot on, though, with very limited stops, and so what you have to have in those outlying areas is the infrastructure so that people can park their vehicle, get onto the high speed, and get to where they want. I think you will find there will be very few stops, but there have to be some stops, and less, way less, than five in the whole whole rail line. Less than five in order for us to be able to ensure that it is high speed, and is going to get us there in a timely fashion we want. Mount Vernon is a possibility, something either directly in Bend or outside Portland, dramatically between the two, and then one stop in the northern part of Washington, that may be all there is.

This is a TBD because we need to engage, and this is a launch period where we want to engage with communities, not just elected officials, but the citizens of these communities up and down Cascadia. We polled, and people are very supportive of the idea, but they want to know more, and they’re entitled to be a part of the planning.

Miller: I’ve seen estimates ranging from $24 to $42 billion high-speed rail network in northwestern Oregon and British Columbia. What’s your ballpark assumption for what this would cost?

Gregoire: That’s consistent with the studies that have been done. We’ve had three studies done so far, one about what’s the expected ridership, what could we expect in terms of economic growth, what could we expect in jobs? 200,000. What’s the business case analysis, what’s the fare box revenue and really, how do we get going? We’ve had all those studies done, consistent with what you just said, that’s the range that has been provided to us.

Let me contrast that to if we were to take and add one lane each direction, Interstate 5 from the Canadian border to Washington and Oregon border; it would cost about $108 billion, and by the time it was constructed, we would have overwhelmed it as well. So we can’t think about that as a solution. We’ve got to have a bigger, bolder idea for what the solution might be. While that seems like a steep price tag, the bottom line is, we’re going to find ourselves in a much worse crisis that’s going to be happening in terms of affordability, in terms of traffic congestion, in terms of inability to address climate, and we’re suffering from the consequences now. There’s no big alternatives out there that can give us the kind of vision that would allow us to be able to do what we need to do to address a rising population of about four million people in the corridor.

Miller: There is another possibility that some real advocates have talked about which maybe you wouldn’t call it a big solution, but they say it’s a cheaper, more efficient, more effective, and much faster alternative, which is to modernize and electrify and improve the existing cascade rail system where the right of way is already established. It’s all there and you don’t have to go through a decade or more of planning, and tens of billions of dollars of cost. You can just make what we already have much better. Why not start with that, or at least put that on an immediate fast track?

Gregoire: Electrification is great; we would hope that if we’re going to be sustainable, we’re going to do something with that with high speed transportation. The number of stops that the current rail transportation system has to take means that you’re not going to see the greatly diminished amount of time that it takes to get from one place to another, so we’ve looked at that, others have looked at that, and while that sounds appealing, this is not intended to replace that system. That system needs to continue because there are short commutes that need to be done. There are places to stop in Olympia.

For example, I’ve taken the train; my daughter went to school in Oregon, I took the train there, but it took a long time to go from Olympia to her university in Oregon. The point being, the current system is fine, and upgrading is great, but it is not going to answer the questions and the problems that we’re facing on a big scale in terms of population increase and the demands that are going to be put on the system.

Miller: One of the issues that’s been a really hot one in Texas in the last couple years is right of way. There, it’s a private company that is proposing a high speed rail between Dallas and Houston. Is there already a route that is proposed or in the works for what you’re talking about, or would a full route have to be still decided on in the northwest that would potentially mean eminent domain and tearing up homes or entire neighborhoods?

Gregoire: Clearly, those decisions have not been made, which is why the memorandum of understanding, signed by the governors of Washington and Oregon, and the premier of British Columbia, on November 16th was so critical. It is the next big step. It is a coordinating entity to be established that will activate some of these activities. Most importantly, we’ll begin the process to engage with locals, to ask the question, “Is this what you want? Are you willing to engage in it? Do you have a better idea? How can we proceed? What is it you want to see?”

The question you’re asking is yet to be decided, but this is why that memorandum was so critical. It’s to launch this very dialogue about where exactly this is going to be located. Once you get past the major cities, Portland, Seattle, Vancouver, there’s a lot of open land between the respective jurisdictions, so there’s a lot of opportunity there to not only look at high speed transportation, but to look at connectivity, so that when whatever we do is done, we can ensure the highest internet connections. We can do a whole lot more than being simply focused on what the benefits might be. So that’s where we’re headed. That’s a decision yet to be made. It’s a discussion that must be made with the public, up and down the corridor.

Miller: I noted the model in Texas, which is a private project. The same is true in Florida. What do you think of that model, as opposed to a public rail system?

Gregoire: Well, to be honest with you, Dave, I actually think there are three models, and that this coordinating group needs to look at all three models. One is the public model, which you see in California. To your point, the alternative model is in Texas, which is completely private. There’s a third model, which is a public private partnership; much more is done like that in Canada than is done in the United States. I think those are all three viable alternatives that we need to take a look at.

Again, the coordinating committee has to begin the process of asking, ok, how can we really fund this? What is the best of the three alternatives? And then have the public engage on which of those three alternatives they want.

Miller: You wrote recently in an op ed in the Seattle Times, we’ve learned from the pitfalls of other high speed rail projects in California and elsewhere. I’m curious what specifically you did learn from the public project in southern California, which is behind schedule and over budget.

Gregoire: What we’ve asked is a study to be done to really go in depth. We’ve talked to Texas at length, we’ve talked to California at length, but we would like an objective party to come in and tell us, exactly, what are the things that were done, and the things that were not, so that we don’t replicate the mistakes.

Basically the biggest issue in California, because the voters decided this is what they wanted, there was over-promise and under-delivery, and we are very sensitive to that. We’ve done enough megaprojects in Washington state to understand how important this is to the public. That’s why we want to make sure when we give an absolute estimate, as to cost, and an absolute time of how long it will take, that we’re accurate and that we’ve got studies to back it up and so on. We want to learn from the successes of Japan, for example, and the mistakes made in California, so we’re asking an entity to take a look at what those lessons are, and how can we learn from them? How can we avoid them and what are their successes, so we can replicate those.

Miller: So, if you’re not going to over-promise, what do you think is actually the best case scenario for when somebody could actually get on one of these trains and actually take it to another one of these cities?

Gregoire: TBD. That relies on the funding and the infrastructure bill, and, if the Build Back Better bill passes. Congressman DeFazio has a very big leadership role. Senator Cantwell from Washington has been in a very big leadership role to give us the opportunity to be eligible for grant funding to do this kind of planning. What we expect to do is ask for approximately $500 million dollars, out of either what has been done already in the infrastructure bill, which is about $12 billion, or the $10 billion that is being identified in Build Back Better, and in specific, one billion set aside for the very purpose of planning by Congressman Defazio. We want to engage on that, to not only answer the question you’ve just raised, but what’s the funding mechanism? When can we expect it to come online? How are we going to proceed? To answer those questions for the public so that they can make an informed decision about whether they want us to proceed with this or not, and to take, quite frankly, other questions that the public is going to have along the way.

Miller: Chris Gregoire, thanks for your time today. I appreciate it.

Gregoire: You got it. Thanks, Dave.

Miller: That’s Chris Gregoire, former Washington governor who is now the CEO of Challenge Seattle. That’s a public policy organization made up of CEOs from the region’s largest employers.

Contact “Think Out Loud®”

If you’d like to comment on any of the topics in this show, or suggest a topic of your own, please get in touch with us on Facebook or Twitter, send an email to, or you can leave a voicemail for us at 503-293-1983. The call-in phone number during the noon hour is 888-665-5865.