Bullet trains would do more than connect Seattle, Portland and Vancouver, British Columbia at speeds up to 220 mph, supporters say.
They also can spur more housing near new and existing rail stations and open up areas to development, according to a 400-page study by the Montreal-based consulting firm WSP.
“This kind of development, in which residential and office development can be built in close proximity to increase housing supply and help create live-work communities, can benefit lower-income households that currently spend up to 15.7 percent of their take-home income on transportation costs,” the study said.
A statewide nonprofit group has expressed concern that the project could do the opposite.
If high-speed rail has stations in areas with high poverty rates and low property values, it could “increase sprawl, gentrification and displacement of vulnerable populations,” said Futurewise, a Seattle-based group which supports sustainable land use and opposes urban sprawl.
The link between transportation and housing could play a big factor in whether the project moves forward.
The $1.5 million study released last month was commissioned by the states of Washington and Oregon, the province of British Columbia and Microsoft Corp. The project potentially would generate $355 billion in economic growth by creating larger labor markets for employers and providing greater housing choices in areas with supply and affordability constraints, the WSP study said.
Since 2010, average wages in Seattle, Portland and Vancouver, B.C. have increased by slightly over 20 percent. In that same period, housing costs have increased by 60 percent or more — nearly twice the rate in North America.
“For many workers, it is not simply a question of finding an affordable home, it is a question of how close that home will be to their work and the cost of the commute, measured in dollars and time,” the study says.
The project’s construction cost is estimated up to $42 billion, with a mixture of public and private dollars envisioned. The study envisions high-speed rail debuting in 2040. By comparison, adding a lane in each direction on Interstate 5 in Washington would cost about $108 billion in 2018 dollars, the state said.
How high speed rail would lead to more affordable housing is a complex issue. The argument, as outlined in several sections of the report, goes like this.
To travel at speeds up to 220 mph, bullet trains would run on two new tracks along a path that would need to be largely straight. In addition to express trips with stops in the Seattle metropolitan area, Portland and Vancouver, B.C., there also would be trips with stops in cities including Tacoma, Olympia, Bellingham, Everett, Bellevue-Redmond, Tukwila, Kelso-Longview and Surrey, B.C.
The report says bullet train designers and planners would need to work with local government officials to encourage residential development near stations. They also would need to work with transit agencies to provide service that connects with the new stations. The third step would be to locate stations not only at the center of larger thriving cities, but also in communities with lower housing prices.
High-speed rail stations frequently are the hub for high-density commercial and residential development, according to the study.
“While most likely not the primary option for commuters, the utilization of the (high-speed rail) system by intercity travelers will free up capacity on roadways and rail transit for local and commuter trips ...,” the report says
Not for daily commuters
Why would bullet trains not be the most likely option for daily commuters?
The reason would be price.
Although a decision on fares is far into the future, the study by WSP examined a fare at 52 cents per mile. That would be $36 for a daily round-trip between Tacoma and Seattle. The round-trip price for the Sounder commuter train is $10.50. The adult fare for the Sound Transit express bus is $7.50. For a vehicle that gets 40 miles per gallon, it would cost slightly less than $6 at current gasoline prices. Those figures don’t account for the cost of lost time commuting or the impacts on the environment, including climate change.
There is potential for commuter service, which operates on tracks owned by freight rail companies, to move to the high-speed rail tracks. That could enable commuter rail to possibly become a more attractive option if those trains can run faster and provide more frequent service.
Who are these “intercity travelers” that would ride bullet trains, which could make 20 to 31 round-trips per day between Vancouver, B.C. and Portland?
Business and leisure travelers might be the primary users, said Janet Matkin, a spokeswoman for the Washington State Department of Transportation.
It’s possible that there could be lower fares for daily commuters making short trips from their homes near the bullet train station on the edge of a big city. It’s more likely they would use transit. Those transit connections would be needed to get business travelers from a bullet train station on the edge of Seattle, for example, to downtown.
At 52 cents per mile, passenger revenue could generate up to $250 million in 2040 and cover the entire operating cost per year if revenue is 10 percent higher or costs are the same percentage lower than currently projected, the study said.
A lower fare — or one carved out for daily commuters — could require government subsidies that often are politically controversial.
The housing question
The study uses Bellingham as an example of how high-speed rail would affect housing.
An average resident of Bellingham pays more than half of their $53,415 income on housing and transportation. An average Seattle resident pays $495 more per month on housing, but a smaller share (46 percent) of a higher income ($70,475). The report says bullet trains would provide Bellingham residents with access to a much larger range of job opportunities, such as higher-paying jobs in Seattle.
“Depending on the fare structure, a new service might reduce the percentage of income that workers in the smaller cities devote to housing and transportation,” the report says.
Also, bullet trains would make smaller cities like Bellingham and Olympia more attractive for employers, bring them closer to lower-priced housing for workers that would be built around new stations, according to the study. High-speed rail would “provide the swift connection to sustain business operations, but much of the workforce might live in these new communities and might not need to rely on transit or motor vehicles to get to work.”
Bellingham Mayor Kelli Linville said she supports the project, in part because it would fit into the city’s strategy to add more housing.
“Housing is more affordable than Seattle, but it’s not affordable,” Linville said. “We’re looking at urban villages in high-density areas and that would fit in with the bullet train idea; areas around the transit stops and the train stop would be where we are looking to put more housing to. Anything that gets us off the freeway is a good thing. Anything that would bring better economic opportunities to our communities would be a great thing.”
Futurewise is a member of an advisory group that is studying the project. The nonprofit group said its top concern is where stations would be located. Two of the three proposed routes and station locations, for example, show the Kelso-Longview area as a potential stop.
Kelso has a 29 percent poverty rate — more than twice the state average — and the medium property value is $125,000, which is about a third of the state average, according to a blog post that Futurewise posted in late May.
“A high-speed rail line that would allow people to live in Kelso or Longview and easily commute to Seattle has the potential to increase access to jobs and drive economic development,” the nonprofit group said. “At the same time, absent other policy interventions, a new stop is also likely to increase sprawl, gentrification and displacement of vulnerable populations in the area.”
Bryce Yadon, a lobbyist representing Futurewise, said social equity and economic inclusion must be part of all phases of the project, particularly how affordable housing is defined and who benefits from bullet train service.
“High-speed rail has the chance to transform our area. When you look at the history of flying, you had the longest period where only individuals in the top 10 percent (of income) could fly,” Yadon said. “Now, flying is accessible to the vast majority of people. We want to make sure that as we move forward with high-speed rail that we’re looking at land-use equity but also access to opportunity as people move around the region.”
Mark Harmsworth, a research fellow at the Washington Policy Center, a nonprofit free market group, said he believes supporters are using housing as a way to build support for the bullet train project. He noted that the study does not define “affordable housing.” The federal government defines it as any housing that costs an owner or renter no more than 30 percent of gross household income, including utilities.
Harmsworth said if the goal is to reduce the cost of developing housing, the state should ease restrictions in the Growth Management Act, which is designed to regulate urban sprawl and protect environmentally-sensitive lands but has been criticized by some as decreasing housing affordability.
”Relax the rules on urban growth areas around cities so that we can spread out a little bit and then you will see housing costs go down. The demand is obviously higher than the availability right now,” said Harmsworth, a former Republican state House member who lives in Snohomish County.
Former Tacoma Mayor Marilyn Strickland told The News Tribune she envisions bullet trains benefiting “people in a lot of different professions and wage groups” and leading to housing near stations for “people of all income levels.”
Strickland is president and chief executive officer of the Seattle Metropolitan Chamber of Commerce. As a member of the bullet train advisory group, she pushed for a recommendation that social equity and economic inclusiveness should be “core values” in developing the project. That would include identifying opportunities to “elevate quality of life through job creation” and addressing damaging burdens that might result from the location of the route and stations.
“We have an opportunity to link transportation investment with housing,” Strickland said.