Afterthought: Don’t Hold Your Breath for High-Speed Rail to Seattle

The difficulty of crossing an international border is just one of many obstructions the project would face

(Epifania Alarcon)

In late November, Washington Governor Jay Inslee paid a visit to the B.C. Legislative Assembly to announce that he would soon release a report on the feasibility of a high speed rail system that would stretch from Portland, Oregon to Vancouver, British Columbia.

A part of the report apparently says that the trains on the route would run with top speeds reaching 400 kilometres per hour. Inslee said that it would cut the trip time between Vancouver and Seattle down from the three-hour drive to less than an hour, meaning that Vancouverites on the move would have a faster time getting to Seattle than Langely.

This would obviously open up a world of possibilities for commuters in the metro areas along the West Coast. There are people who already commute from the island to work, or who drive over the border and back everyday, so it’s definitely plausible that people would start to take jobs in Washington while still living in and around Vancouver, and vice-versa.

This would also benefit local industries in each of the cities, primarily technology, real estate, tourism, and maybe even shipping. Businesses would have a much better selection of employee options, and workers would have more choice in where they can look for jobs. However, I can also see this backfiring for B.C. businesses that pay their employees minimum wage, since their workers would have access to a job market that pays $15.00 U.S. minimum. Could this lead to Vancouver experiencing an employment shortage in services and retail? Or would it force these businesses to start offering higher wages in order to stay competitive?

These are just a few in a litany of questions that need to be answered before B.C. can seriously consider accepting this proposal, which is why John Horgan seemed leery of the project when it was announced. He pointed out that Canada-U.S.A. customs and border control regulations might prove to be a major obstacle for commuters looking to save time.

“If we stop for an extended period of time at the border, we’re defeating the purpose,” Horgan said during a press conference with Inslee. And he’s right. It doesn’t matter how quickly the train gets you to Seattle if you still have to spend an hour and a half beforehand lining up for security checks, declaring goods, and filling out those irksome customs forms.

Border control laws are handled federally, and so any workarounds to solve this issue would have to come with the assent of the federal government, which could take more than a year to finalize. The fact that this is even a problem points out just how obstructive our constantly tightening border controls are in the face of international cooperation. For a project geared towards increasing convenience for commuters and travellers, it’s already looking pretty inconvenient.

Most European countries have been interconnected by rail for the better part of the last century, and border crossings there are commonplace. There should be a wide selection of ready-made legislative models that we could look at in Canada.

Another question worth asking is, “Who’s paying for this, and how are they going to do it?” Governor Inslee said that he was looking into getting funding from the American government, and that revenues from the project would cover operating costs. It’s likely that our provincial government would do the same with the Canadian federal government, but the B.C. NDP don’t really need another massive and expensive infrastructure project on their plate. The Site C Dam and the now toll-less Port Mann Bridge are stark examples of how fiscally volatile these projects can become in the long term.

Obviously, this would take a good number of cars off of the road and reduce pollution, but what will the local environmental impacts of the construction be like? And what effect would this have on busses and air travel?

Perhaps when Inslee’s report is released in full it will answer some of these questions, but until we can seriously address these issues, we probably shouldn’t expect this idea to come to fruition any time soon.