Transportation Troubleshooting: Cascadia Innovation Corridor Partnership: Balancing Growth and Livability through Ground Transportation
As a resident of Olympia, Wash., I live in one of the most attractive, economically vigorous and culturally rich regions of the United States: the Cascadia Corridor. While not as fast-growing as the Texas Triangle or as large as SoCal, our Pacific Northwest megaregion possesses a dynamic knowledge economy of high-tech employers and universities, a vast land-marine border that saw $12 billion in Canada-U.S. trade in 2017, and coastal ecosystems and cultures that draw millions of tourists annually.
Yet, to travel to the major cities that anchor Cascadia—Vancouver to the north, Portland to the south—travelers must choose between driving on painfully congested highways, air travel or devoting many hours to linking limited local and regional transit trips. Even traveling the 60 miles to Seattle can take more than two hours by car or bus, and this congestion is poised to get much worse as the Cascadia region continues to grow by an estimated 4 million people by 2050.
Need for Speed
To chart a different course for regional growth and development, Cascadia’s business, political and community leaders came together to form the Cascadia Innovation Corridor Partnership. The partnership, in which I’m privileged to serve as its infrastructure committee co-chair, seeks to cooperatively accelerate regional economic growth and job creation while mitigating traffic congestion, reducing greenhouse gas emissions, tackling our affordable housing crisis, and addressing other chronic needs. And we aim to make ultra-high-speed ground transportation the catalyst for achieving these goals.
In our vision, which could be a model for other North American megaregions seeking to balance growth with livability, ultra-high-speed ground transportation would cut travel times dramatically, better connect the region’s communities, and allow Cascadia residents to access well-paying jobs without long commutes from distant suburbs and exurbs.
Our business members—from Microsoft to organizations in life sciences, technology, aerospace, energy, construction, agriculture and other industries—view high-speed transportation as a critical pillar of future economic growth. They want to ensure a sustainable transportation future for our region and livable, affordable communities for their employees.
While the partnership advocates for a new high-speed rail system from Vancouver to Portland (and beyond), this is not a top-down mandate. Working alongside the leadership of Washington, Oregon and British Columbia, the Cascadia Innovation Corridor business partners seek to support the work of the agencies who are making advances in corridor identification, business-case analysis and community engagement. As lead agency, WSDOT is focused on essential local engagement, learning about the needs and interests of every community on or near the I-5 corridor … especially indigenous communities and other groups that have been under-represented in planning.
Where jurisdictions already have long-term plans, the partnership will look for ways to connect its vision with existing local and regional infrastructure and transportation services to connect the megaregion.
We’ll also leverage our investment in transportation infrastructure to meet other needs. Housing is the most obvious, and we look to emulate the success of Vancouver and its neighbors, Burnaby and Surrey, in building high-density housing near transit and rail stations. Beyond housing, we foresee using the rights of way acquired for new rail systems to build out broadband capacity for those communities that now lack robust internet connectivity.
This approach of leveraging infrastructure to enhance regional equity and meet multiple needs is championed in the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law (BIL, also known as the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act). And while we know there are robust needs across the country among rail programs for available BIL funding, we believe our integrated approach—endorsed by the two state governors and the premier of British Columbia, yet grounded in community engagement—will put Cascadia, in combination with investments in Amtrak’s Cascades service, in a solid position to win funding for its projects.
A Better Future
In Cascadia, it’s painfully obvious that without a new growth and development model, we’ll continue to see nurses, teachers and first responders forced to live outside the communities they serve. We’ll see more residents join the swelling ranks of the “mega-commuters” who drive more than three hours daily to and from work. We’ll see our horrendous traffic congestion get worse and our greenhouse gas emissions increase.
For other megaregions, the consequences of development-as-usual may be different by degree, but we’re all facing the same types of threats. Our vision is rooted in the unique moist soil of Cascadia.
Still, there’s no reason why such an integrated and ambitious strategy—one that uses sustainable transportation to meet housing and other needs—can’t also be used in U.S. megaregions such as the Texas Triangle, SoCal, BosWash (a.k.a., the Northeast Corridor) and others.