Is Cascadia's train coming in?

High-speed rail between Seattle and Vancouver could be a catalyst for regional development, and identity.
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High speed rail could pull together the nation-state of Cascadia

High-speed rail between Seattle and Vancouver could be a catalyst for regional development, and identity.

Cascadia boosters come in two main flavors: Ecotopians and business boosters. The greens want to let the environmental and spiritual health of the bio-region guide our politics; the boosters see prosperity through trade and economic cooperation.

Thus, Cascadians might wave "Old Doug," the Cascadian flag, on behalf of separate, but sometimes overlapping, agendas. The tribes and eco-activists want to save the orcas of the Salish Sea, while the conservative Discovery Institute's Cascadia Prospectus touts the benefits of public private partnerships to boost regional development and sees cooperation as a kind of local version of globalization.

A catalyst for Cascadian cooperation could be development of a high-speed rail link along the I-5 corridor between Vancouver, British Columbia and Eugene, Oregon. (Or even extending all the way to San Diego?) The Vancouver-Eugene segment is one of the stretches eligible for some of the $8 billion dollars in stimulus package money the Obama administration wants to dole out (and the administration is requesting even more). Some of our neighbors to the north would like to piggy-back on the U.S. push for high-speed rail. Imagine Wi-fied trains speeding business commuters between Seattle and Vancouver, cutting an hour or more off the current travel time and providing an more ecological alternative than flying or driving.

In a front-page piece in the Vancouver Sun, columnist Miro Cernetig says Canada should get on board with the U.S. project for the sake of Cascadia:

It's potentially a game-changing development. We're no longer just talking about slight improvements to this unique Canada-U.S. rail link. The political will now exists in the U.S. for a real push to high-speed train travel in the corridor, much like Amtrak's Acela Express now running between Boston, New York, and Washington, D.C.

It's vital that Vancouver, the province, and Canada get aboard. This linkage will further our role in the mega-region, the conglomeration of key cities that will be North America's economic hubs in the 21st century.

Here's how urban theorist Richard Florida frames it: "Worldwide, people are crowding into a discrete number of mega-regions, systems of multiple cities and their surrounding suburban rings like the Boston-New York-Washington Corridor. In North America, these mega-regions include SunBelt centers like the Char-Lanta Corridor, Northern and Southern California, the Texas Triangle of Houston-San Antonio-Dallas, and Southern Florida's Tampa-Orlando-Miami area, [and] the Pacific Northwest's Cascadia, stretching from Portland through Seattle to Vancouver....

This vision of Cascadia is largely accepted wisdom on this side of the border. (Though I wouldn't say "Char-Lanta" exactly has a ring to it; sounds too much like a heart-burn medication.) It's similar to the 1950s vision that gave rise to the concept of Pugetopolis in the first place: large, multi-center urban areas as the "cities" of the future. Seattle and Vancouver (not unlike San Francisco) particularly like to look to an elite future where they are rich repositories of the creative class. Our world-class ambitions are distinctly Floridian.

The folks at Discovery's Cascadian Prospectus are excited about Obama's high-speed rail spending too. They see it as a catalyst for more private investment in the corridor. High-speed trains will eventually mean a separate freight corridor to get rid of current and future rail gridlock, as anyone knows who's taken north-south passenger trains between Seattle and California. It is seen as helping bind the region's business class together with fast access to one another. Ridership in the corridor is already increasing. According to Cascadia's Matt Rosenberg:

Here in the Pacific Northwest, the existing Amtrak Cascades route between Portland and Seattle includes extensions south to Eugene and north to Bellingham, Wash. and Vancouver, B.C. Operated by Amtrak in concert with the Washington State Department of Transportation and the Oregon DOT, the route's ridership hit a record high in 2008, up 14 percent from 2007. Travelers like the alternative to slogging on Interstate 5.

Current flies in the Cascadia ointment are the disconnect between the U.S. and Canada. Everyone marvels at how invisible Vancouver is to most Seattleites. Certainly most Americans could not name the prime minister of Canada and BC is more frequently seen as a vacation destination or a source of illicit "bud." It otherwise lives under a cloud of blissful ignorance occasionally pierced by an attempt to emulate its skinny towers. Too, there's an ideological divide between free-market, gun-toting Americans and their mysterious Canadian cousins who seem to court socialism (see their healthcare system).

One of the barriers that could come down in Cascadia is a greater sense of regional connection brought about through rail, but also the sense that we're now closer to being on the same page politically. Obama is popular in Canada and shares a post-Ronald Reagan sense that government is part of the solution, not the problem. A public affairs consultant who works for Canadian clients has repeatedly marveled at how progressive, by American standards, even Canadian conservatives are when it comes to using government muscle to get things done. The Blaine Peace Arch says we're "children of a common mother." Could we now, in the Obama era, also be children of a common political perspective, especially when it comes to green infrastructure?

The kind of elite development touted by Florida and others has major social and class implications that need to be explored (even resisted), but it has offered a lot of common ground for developers and greens to work together in city-building (see Greg Nickels' Seattle). Whether the growth and development it demands is truly green or good for us is open to question.

But it is worth remembering that even Ecotopia, the influential Pacific Northwest utopian fantasy envisioned by author Ernest Callenbach in 1975, had a high-speed mag-lev rail system built by a corporate giant (Boeing). You could sit in bean-bag chairs, smoke pot, and virtually fly around the region cheaply and greenly. Ecotopians were mellow, but high-tech. And obviously way ahead of their times.


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About the Authors & Contributors

Knute Berger

Knute Berger

Knute “Mossback” Berger is Crosscut's Editor-at-Large.