COLUMN: Seattle to Surrey rail not yet a done deal

Premier John Horgan travelled to Seattle and Olympia last week for a series of meetings and speeches.

He also contributed another $300,000 from B.C. taxpayers to a Washington State study on high-speed passenger rail between Portland and Vancouver. This follows a $300,000 contribution made by the B.C. government last year. The results of the business case analysis are expected this summer.

Horgan also indicated, in a joint press conference with Washington governor Jay Inslee, that the high-speed rail line would terminate in Surrey, where passengers could connect with existing transit systems, primarily SkyTrain.

Mayor Doug McCallum is enthusiastic about this, as can be expected.

It’s a good idea to do more study of high-speed rail, which has been discussed for years. Washington state has been a major proponent of the idea, with B.C. and Oregon also contributing funds towards getting the project started.

Estimates are the whole line between Portland and Surrey would cost as much as $42 billion, with a completion date of 2035. However, it would move passengers at a much higher rate of speed than any other land transportation. It would be well-utilized and certainly offer viable alternatives to driving or flying.

The public is likely highly skeptical. Many people will see this as a pie-in-the-sky idea that will never come about. There has been plenty of discussion for many years, but little tangible progress.

As pointed out by Black Press reporter Tom Zytaruk last week, 10 years ago there was much discussion of high-speed rail all the way from San Diego to Vancouver, along with a “hydrogen highway” (Interstate 5 and Highway 99 in B.C.) to reduce the use of fossil fuels. Then-premier Gordon Campbell and then-California governor Arnold Schwarzenegger were big enthusiasts. Neither project has even come close to fruition.

In fact, on Feb. 12, just a few days after Horgan’s meeting with Inslee, current California governor Gavin Newsom was giving his first State of the State address in Sacramento. In it, he poured a lot of cold water on the state’s current plan to build high-speed rail between San Francisco and Los Angeles, due to the enormous cost.

The estimated costs at present are $77 billion. Work has begun on a stretch between Merced and Bakersfield in the Central Valley, and Newsom said that work would continue.

“Let’s be real. The current project, as planned, would cost too much and, respectfully, take too long,” he said.

While he later walked back some of his comments, after an enormous amount of public reaction to his initial statement, he has a very valid point – is it really practical to build high-speed rail anywhere along the west coast of North America, given the geographical barriers, enormous costs, and vast rural areas between the major west coast cities? Will the benefits be worth that cost?

A high-speed rail terminus in Surrey could be a huge benefit to this city. However, there are so many other factors involved that it would be very premature to get too many hopes up.

Frank Bucholtz writes Wednesdays for Peace Arch News, as well as at frankbucholtz.blogspot.ca – email frank.bucholtz@gmail.com

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