The people of the Pacific Northwest need common sense rail transportation solutions that serve public interests in a time of climate crisis. We DO NOT need, nor can we afford, boondoggle projects like the “Ultra” high speed rail project.
Join Solutionary Rail and allied organizations in requesting that Secy. Buttigieg and Federal Railroad Administration Administrator Bose reject the Washington State Dept of Transportation’s (WSDOT) grant applications for the “Ultra” project. And instead, request that Secy. Buttigieg and Administrator Bose urge WSDOT to implement the Long Range Plan for the Amtrak Cascades (aka AC-LRP) to deliver Acela-like service to the Pacific NW at a cost we can afford, and on a timeline that counts for climate.
This recent letter, signed by the Democratic Caucus of the Washington State Congressional delegation in support of the “Ultra” project, does not represent the best interests of Washingtonians and our neighbors. We all want more rail service, but the “Ultra” project is not the way to deliver that in a manner that actually meets crucial climate, environmental and mobility justice goals in a timeframe that is proportionate to the urgency of those goals.
The recent Washington State Joint Transportation Committee (JTC) study of the “Ultra” high speed rail project called out the project’s vague definition, unrealistic cost estimates, and its infeasible timeline for implementation. The ultra project hasn’t settled on a technology, a route or level of service. It may only make one stop in Washington, or a maximum of 5 stops. The JTC study determined that the cost range of the ill-defined project is not $24-42 billion, but instead reported to the committee that the new minimum is actually $70-$150 billion. Even if that funding was found, the project defined, and the corridor acquired, the “Ultra” project’s completion would not be the 2035 date purported by its boosters, but decades away, i.e. 2050 or beyond.
A 2050 completion date is far too late to be legitimately promoted as a climate solution. Thus, the “Ultra” project is not only a boondoggle in the classic sense, it is also the epitome of a false solution for addressing the climate crisis.
We urgently need to slash transportation emissions and energy use by 2030. TheLong Range Plan for the Amtrak Cascades* is a far more effective way to do that.
This detailed, multi-volume, six-phase plan for significant upgrades to the existing North-South rail corridor would deliver 110 mph speeds on dedicated track, 14 trains per day between Seattle and Portland, 6 trains per day between Seattle and Vancouver, BC, serve 14 communities along the way and improve rail freight fluidity as well. The Long Range Plan for the Amtrak Cascades provides the Pacific Northwest with a pathway to an Acela-like rail system within a decade – at a fraction of the cost of the “Ultra” project. Tragically, this common sense rail solution is being obscured and ignored in service of boosting the “Ultra” boondoggle.
We don’t need the “Ultra” high speed boondoggle project. We need USDOT and FRA to support implementation of the common sense and feasible Long Range Plan for the Amtrak Cascades.
TO: Secretary of Transportation Pete Buttigieg, FRA Administrator Amit Bose
CC: Democratic WA Congressional Delegation
Deny Grant for Bullet Train Boondoggle – Urge WSDOT to Implement Existing Plan for 110 mph trains & hourly service on Amtrak Cascades
In the name of common sense transportation solutions in a time of climate crisis, we ask you to reject requests for federal funding of the “ultra” high speed ground transportation project in Washington state, also referred to as “Cascadia High Speed Rail.” The letter recently signed by the Democratic Caucus of the Washington State Congressional delegation in support of the “ultra” high speed rail project does not represent the best interests of Washingtonians and our neighbors. We all want more rail, but the “ultra” project will not help us achieve crucial climate, environmental, and mobility justice goals in a timeframe that matters.
Both the Congressional delegation letter and the application submitted by the Washington State DOT repeat falsehoods about the “ultra” high speed rail project, and they leave out two critical documents (one study and one plan) that we bring to your attention:
The Congressional delegation letter specifically omits mention of the independent study commissioned by the Washington State Joint Transportation Committee from June 2023. This study critiqued the “ultra” high speed rail project on many important counts – timeframe, cost, route, and governance structure.
This is an independent assessment of the three studies produced for the “ultra” project to date. The JTC study describes the project as being still in a purely “conceptual” phase, lacking a preferred technology, actual route, or level of service. The independent reviewers found that the previous studies relied on non-representative polling techniques. And they underscore the lack of a governance structure for decision-making across two states and an international border into British Columbia.
Capital cost projections for the “ultra” project were found to be similarly unrealistic. The range of $24-$42 billion given in the 2018 study would be $36-63 billion, if the project were built today (page 39). In their presentation to the Joint Transportation Committee in June 2023, the consultants estimated a minimum of $70 billion – and even that adjustment is based on the assumption that the terrain is flat, which in Western Washington it is not. In the future, depending on how much tunneling is necessary, capital costs could reach $150 billion (page 53), based on an estimated 80-90 miles of tunnels under cities and ridges.
In addition to that, the application and the Congressional delegation letter both ignore the existence of the Long Range Plan for the Amtrak Cascades (2006), a seven-volume document of phased projects that maps a pathway to delivering Acela-like Amtrak service to the Cascades corridor – far more cheaply and in a fraction of the time the fraught “ultra” high speed rail project would take.
The application and the Congressional delegation letter misrepresent the nature of the “ultra” high speed rail project as a climate, mobility and environmental justice solution, when in reality the project is a boondoggle in the classic sense – a waste of time, tax dollars (including Climate Commitment Act funds), and precious public energy.
The report to the JTC also made clear that there are no real-world examples of “ultra’s” 250-mph high speed rail service (the world’s fastest trains have been tested at higher speeds but provide service under 220 mph). Presenters suggested that projects like this are “decades not years” in the making. Regarding some additional challenges posed by building an international mega-project between the U.S. and Canada, presenters pointed to the Gordie-Howe International Bridge (slides 5 and 16).
Even California’s high speed rail project, which has faced many challenges but not that of crossing international borders, is decades in the making. California started working on its high speed rail project over twenty years ago and some of it may be operational by 2030. By contrast, Washington’s high speed rail project is getting a much later start. It is a “Vision for 2050” only – and 2050 will be too late. We absolutely need to slash transportation emissions and energy use by 2030.
The Long Range Plan for the Amtrak Cascades* is a far more effective way to do that. Despite WSDOT and the “ultra” project’s corporate boosters doing everything in their power to draw attention away from this common sense alternative, this detailed, six-phase plan for significant upgrades to the existing North-South corridor would deliver an Acela-like rail system to the Pacific Northwest with 110 mph trains speeds within a decade. And it would do so at a fraction of the cost of the ultra project. The plan, already paid for with tens of millions of taxpayer dollars, was published in 2006 and needs only to be updated to be shovel-ready. Very few of its projects have been implemented, but if the Long Range Plan had been finished by 2018 as was originally intended, we would already have:
2 ½ hour trip duration between Seattle and Portland, 14 times a day,
2 ¾ hour trip duration between Seattle and Vancouver, B.C., 6 times a day, and
14 communities served (compared to the far fewer stops (3-7) on “ultra” service)
Upgrades to the existing rail infrastructure would also benefit freight transportation – critical for mode-shift of freight from trucks and planes to cleaner, more efficient, and ultimately electrified trains.
We don’t need the “ultra” high speed rail project. We need USDOT and FRA to support implementation of the Long Range Plan for the Amtrak Cascades. The full seven-volume Long Range Plan is available HERE, and a synopsis of the plan is HERE.
We therefore urge you to reject any and all funding requests for the “ultra” high speed rail project in Washington state. It is imperative that the FRA and USDOT work with WSDOT to return to implementing the common sense Long Range Plan for the Amtrak Cascades that serves the public interests in a tangible, feasible and timely way, with a goal of completion by 2030-2035. Do this for the sake of the health and mobility of Washingtonians and our neighbors – and for the sake of survival in the face of the climate crisis.
Thank you for your time, consideration, and oversight.
Railroad Workers United (RWU)
Washington Physicians for Social Responsibility
Earth Ministry/Washington Interfaith Power and Light