New research shows how community engagement is integral in its success.
by Sarah Goh
With a growing population in the Pacific Northwest, the call for better public transportation heightens. This March, Washington’s State Legislature signed off on a transportation milestone, allocating $150 million to a high-speed connection between Oregon, Washington, and British Columbia.
Though this funding could reduce congestion, cut carbon emissions, and better connect these coastal cities, a high-speed rail that travels above 200 miles per hour between major cities has never been done before in the United States. How will Washington get started? How will the State ensure a successful project?
A new research report by the University of Washington examines these very questions and identifies key concepts that community members can help with to achieve an efficient high-speed rail. If a rail is built successfully, there will be an extraordinary increase in transportation abilities — saving commuters time while reducing environmental harm.
Professors Jan Whittington and Qing Shen at the UW’s Department of Urban Design and Planning led the research, and with no previous high-speed rail projects in the Northwest, they turned to other states and abroad.
“The purpose of the study was to draw lessons learned from projects, systems, and expertise around the world where high-speed rail has been successful,” Whittington said.
They dedicated six months to both academic and industry research. They interviewed a cadre of transportation experts in France, the Netherlands, Spain, Taiwan, and U.S. cities where high-speed rail is currently developing.
“Oftentimes, [the U.S. is] in a leadership role in developing and growing technologies,” Whittington said. “But here, we’re in a position of needing to learn from people who have had success in their own countries.”
The study allowed interviewees to share their experiences from their own projects. Whittington says that while people are usually unwilling to share their research information, Whittington and Shen’s research allowed experts to talk about their regrets, choices, and early decisions in high-speed rail building.
The final research report spans over 72 pages, with 40 recommendations for transportation departments. However, Whittington emphasized several key points that will be instrumental to the project’s success: For commuters to prioritize rail transportation over air or other non-environmental ways of travel, the high-speed rail must be at its most convenient. To achieve this convenience of speed and efficiency, there cannot be any shortcuts or deviations to the design. Routes are going to be chosen that minimize turns and any design choices that reduce speed.
And Whittington says the designers must also ensure the rail remains dedicated to its high-speed route and that people have the ability to get to the rail through other means of public transportation. “There are going to be a lot of communities you want to serve,” Whittington said, “but you want to find a way to bring those communities to the routes as opposed to bringing the route to the communities.”
Whittington says early planning must engage commuters and the general community. The report itself states, “Have early, systematic, and sustained community engagement, approaching communities to understand their needs instead of selling the idea of high-speed rail.”
Along with community engagement, limiting political sway is important. The study shows that if political representatives convince planners to route through different locations — deviating from the design — cities could end up with an expensive commuter rail system instead of a competitive high-speed rail.
“You have to be very careful about compromises made in design in these early stages,” Whittington said.
Implementing this delicate balance of compromises and early planning is essential for a high-speed rail project, and the UW research has created a place for U.S. transportation departments to start.
“It is our sincere hope that people will be able to see this collection of recommendations as a set of touchstones to build off of as they take the earliest steps in product design and development,” Whittington said.
The Washington State Department of Transportation (WSDOT) has already begun the early stages of building a high-speed rail in the Cascadia region with help from the UW study. They are looking to secure more funding and focus on the meticulousness of the early design process. Especially in collaboration with Oregon and British Columbia, a project like this is formidable and will take years.
“We don’t want to short-circuit the work we need to do with communities,” said Ron Pate, WSDOT’s director for Rail, Freight and Ports. “Our goal is to make sure we work with communities when moving it forward.”
This article is funded in part by an Environmental Justice Fund (EJ Fund) grant through the City of Seattle’s Office of Sustainability & Environment (OSE).
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