The Pacific Northwest seems like the perfect region for high-speed rail: its cities form a neat line from Vancouver to Portland and points south, grow at high rates with transit-oriented development, and have sizable employment cores around the train station. And yet, when I generated my high-speed rail maps, I could only include it as a marginal case, and even that inclusion was charitable:
(Full-size image is available here.)
There’s been a lot of criticism over why I’m including Atlanta-Jacksonville but not Vancouver-Seattle-Portland, and I’d like to explain why the model says this.
The population density in the Western United States is very low. What this means in practice is that cities are far apart – the best example is Denver, a large metropolitan area that is 537 km from the nearest million-plus metro area (Albuquerque). A high-speed line can connect two cities, maybe three, but will not form the multi-city trunk that one sees in Germany or Italy, or even Spain or France. Lines can still make sense if they serve enormous cities like Los Angeles, but otherwise there just isn’t much.
This relates to Metcalfe’s law of network effects. In a dense region, the 500-800 km radius around a city will have so many other cities that network effects are obtained as the system grows. Even Florida, which isn’t dense by European standards, has cities placed closely enough that a medium-size system can connect Miami, Orlando, Tampa, and Jacksonville, and then with a 500 km extension reach Atlanta. The I-85 corridor can likewise accrete cities along the way between Washington and Atlanta and get decent ridership.
In the Pacific Northwest, any intercity infrastructure has to live off Vancouver, Seattle, and Portland – that’s it. Spokane is small, orthogonal to the main line, and separated by mountains; Salem and Eugene are small and Salem is technically in the Portland combined statistical area; California’s cities are very far away and separated by mountains that would take a base tunnel to cross at speed. And Seattle is just not that big – the CSA has 5 million people, about the same as Berlin, which has within 530 km every German metropolitan area.
The model thinks that with Vancouver (2.6)-Seattle (5) at 220 km and Seattle-Portland (3.2) at 280, ridership is as follows, in millions of passengers per year in both directions combined:
|City S\City N||Vancouver||Seattle|
In operating profits in millions of dollars per year, this is,
|City S\City N||Vancouver||Seattle|
This is $135 million a year. It’s actually more optimistic than the official WSDOT study, which thinks the line can’t make an operating profit at all, due to an error in converting between miles and kilometers. The WSDOT study also thinks the cost of the system is $24-42 billion, which is very high. Nonetheless, a normal cost for Vancouver-Portland HSR is on the order of $15 billion, a bit higher than the norm because of the need for some tunnels and some constrained urban construction through I-5 in Seattle.
It isn’t even close. The financial ROI is 0.9%, which is below the rate of return for government debt in the very long run. Even with social benefits included, the rate is very low, maybe 2.5% – and once social benefits come into play, the value of capital rises because competing government investment priorities have social benefits too so it’s best to use the private-sector cost of capital, which is 4-5%.
This exercise showcases the value of density to intercity rail networks. You don’t need Dutch density, but Western US density is too low – the network effects are too weak except in and around California. It would be mad to build Atlanta-Jacksonville as a high-speed rail segment on its own, but once the Florida network and the I-85 network preexist, justified by their internal ridership and by the Piedmont’s connections to the Northeast, connecting Atlanta and Jacksonville becomes valuable.
The one saving grace of the Pacific Northwest is growth. That’s why it’s even included on the map. Lines in the 1.5-1.8% ROI region are not depicted at all, namely Houston-New Orleans and Dallas-Oklahoma City-Kansas City-St. Louis, both discounted because none of the cities connected has local public transportation or a strong city center. The Pacific Northwest is not discounted, and also benefits from strong growth at all ends.
The gravity model says that ridership is proportional to the 0.8th power of the population of each city connected. To get from 0.9% to 2% requires a factor of 2.2 growth, which requires each city to grow by a factor of 2.2^0.625 = 1.65.
Is such growth plausible? Yes, in the long run. In 2006-16, Metro Vancouver grew 16%; in 2010-9, the core three-county Seattle metro area (not CSA) grew 16% as well, and the core Portland metro area (again, not CSA) grew 12%. At 16% growth per decade, the populations will rise by the required factor in 34 years, so building for the 20-year horizon and then relying on ridership growth in the 2050s and 60s isn’t bad. But then that has a lot of risk embedded in it – the growth of Seattle is focused on two companies in a similar industry, and that of Vancouver is to a large extent the same industry too.
Moreover, the region’s relative YIMBYism can turn into NIMBYism fast. Metro Vancouver’s housing growth is healthy, but the region is fast running out of developable non-residential areas closer in than Surrey, which means it will need to replace single-family housing on the West Side with apartment buildings, which it hasn’t done so far. Growing construction costs are also threatening the ability of both Vancouver and Seattle to feed commuters into their central business districts by rail – Seattle may have built U-Link for costs that exist in Germany, but the Ballard/West Seattle line is $650 million/km and mostly above-ground, and the Broadway subway in Vancouver, while only C$500 million/km, is still on the expensive side by non-Anglo standards. It’s useful to plan around future growth and safeguard the line, but not to build it just on the promise of future growth, not at this stage.