Divergent rationales and political actors at work in Cascadia’s high-speed rail corridor vision

by Wesley Regan, Simon Fraser University, edited by Michael Hodges 

Mega-regions are a relatively new spatial scale through which to consider economic, social and other human developmental trends. The mega-region concept can be traced back to Jean Gottman’s research and book Megalopolis: The Urbanized Northeastern Seaboard of the United States. Gottman saw the Northeastern Seaboard as an emerging spatial scale unto itself. Today, this urbanized corridor that includes Boston, New York, and Washington, D/C is one of roughly ten North American mega-regions and emerging mega-regions.

Cascadia, stretching from Portland Oregon to Vancouver, BC, is another. Many planners and academics posit that mega-regions, contained within a single country or spilling over multiple borders and jurisdictions, will be the driving economic engines of the 21st century.

Margaret Dewar and David Epstein, in their article “Planning for ‘Megaregions’ in the United States”, note that most of the work being done on this topic is coming out of Asia and Europe. In the United States, although there is no coordinated governmental strategy, America 2050, “a coalition of regional planners, scholars, and policy-makers” funded by a collection of private foundations and institutes trying to plan for future economic growth, is creating a national plan centered on mega-regions.

 

National growth strategies focusing on mega-regions and urban systems are also proposed by American academics such as Catherine Ross and Ethen Seltzerand Canadian researchers Simmons and Bourne, while other thinkers, like Richard Florida, suggest we should consider the mega-regions in and of themselves a “parallel macro-structure” that forces us to consider the future of spatial and economic development by revealing the nation-state as an illogical unit of analysis.

Despite any clearly coordinated effort to plan collaboratively, mega-region infrastructure projects are currently being promoted by every level of government in North America, justified by various rationales, and, in the case of the Cascadia High-Speed Rail Corridor (HSR), with significant barriers to cooperation across national borders.

With different goals and justifications at different levels of government, do mega-region infrastructure projects run the risk of being more poorly planned and executed than they might be if regional governance bodies similar to those emerging in Asia and Europe were created here in North America? And then of course there’s the question of who pays the most and who benefits the most? An even bigger question: what implications does planning for this scale, across jurisdictions and levels of government, have for current models of governance and political representation?

To illustrate this, let’s compare the language and behaviors at a few different scales in the mega-region of Cascadia by looking at the Cascadian High-Speed Rail Corridor project specifically.

The United States Government frames the Cascadian rail corridor improvements as a job creation project, funded through the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA) but has also been criticized for lacking strong evidence for this rationale. Meanwhile, the mayors of four Cascadian citieswrote a joint letter to the U.S. Secretary of Transportation in 2010 couching the same project under the rationales of “economic vitality”, “quality of life” and “sustainability”, long-term population and transportation trends, all rolled into a vision of a “stronger, greener economic future”. This framing fits the political rhetoric seen from these cities, which have publicly engaged in sustainability competitiveness measures and regional partnerships as part of political platforms and long-term planning strategies.

Given these different justifications, how can we trust that the same vision for the project outcomes will be shared by both levels of government? Planning for high-speed rail could be based on the rationale of job creation alone, thus resulting in a long and winding mega-project that blasts its way through mountains and erects super-bridges across the Puget Sound. Or, if couched under the aegis of sustainability and quality of life, it could be planned to be well integrated into current or future forms of transit and development in the respective cities along the route, and be less labour intensive or take less time to build.

Though both levels clearly appear to believe they are investing in something they will benefit from, they are not necessarily investing in the same thing. Yes, they want to build a high-speed rail corridor, but to what end? When one brings into the mix the Canadian Federal Government, or the British Columbia Provincial Government, who also have a jurisdictional claim to what goes on in some of the geography affected by the project, the issue becomes even more complex.

Vancouver City Councilor Geoff Meggs has publicly decried the Canadian Federal Government for impeding Vancouver’s ability to participate in and benefit from high-speed rail (HSR) investment in Cascadia, and has drawn attention to the Canadian Federal Government’s perceived obliviousness to the potential benefits for the region.

Other publications lay criticism on both the Province of British Columbia and the Canadian Federal Government for effectively preventing this investment from connecting to Vancouver, in contrast to the local government’s regional agreements and goals with other Cascadian cities. The political will is clearly displayed at the state and federal level in the United States, with the signing of the Washington State Sound Transit 2 Bill in 2008 and with Washington and Oregon even advocating for reallocation of HSR funds that had been rejected by other American States.

The Obama Administration’s Jobs Act gave the green light to the project and the major cities along the route from Vancouver, BC to Eugene Oregon signed public letters of intent and lobbying in support of the Corridor project. Despite this, the BC Provincial and Canadian federal governments have showed comparatively little to no interest in supporting the project; Vancouver is left stranded in the equation, though it is an important centre in the Cascadian mega-region.

BC did eventually sign a memorandum with the State of Washington, which stated that both parties recognized “…the potential benefits of high speed passenger rail in the Pacific coast region” and that they would work together to “…develop and advance a shared vision of high speed rail services as key to the economic development of the Pacific coast region”.

After decades of high-speed rail corridor talk in the region, this can hardly be called a decisive action, especially considering the hundreds of millions of dollars in funding already agreed to through the Oregon and Washington State governments and the American Department of Transportation.

This case study clearly shows how an infrastructure project at the mega-region scale has been framed within different contexts depending on which level of government is promoting it, and also demonstrates how when some levels of government or some jurisdictions don’t agree with a plan, or don’t value its rationale equally, tensions or disconnectedness between those parties can be created and projects can become stalled or incomplete in their intended scope.

Perhaps the challenge of these different levels of government in getting to the same destination, a continuous HSR corridor from Eugene to Vancouver, stems from them not collectively starting from the same place.

Ethen Seltzer, in Catherine Ross’s 2011 article “Transport and Megaregions: High-Speed Rail in the United States”, cites delegates at the 2009 Cascadia Critical Geographies conference asking for a rationale for high-speed rail in Cascadia. Attendees openly questioned who would gain the most from high-speed rail in the Pacific Northwest. Other scholars have pointed out that there are even “constitutional disincentives” to cooperation in the Cascadian region as a result of fiscal and legal conditions between political actors.

One can safely assume that responsible use of the public purse should theoretically be one of these constraints (who pays, who benefits, and the inherent political risks). Another might likely be classic conditions of political economy between competing states and regions.

In order to overcome these difficulties, some scholars argue that a certain threshold of legitimacy needs to be met, and that the solving of the political problem of cooperation depends on the as-yet still in progress solving of the philosophical problem of who benefits.

That question of who benefits needs a good, clear and defensible answer. Clearly any mega-region project is a formidable task. Yet, if those academics and planners visited earlier in this article are correct in that the spatial scale which we should focus our economic strategies on is in fact the mega-region, then perhaps we should consider having a proper governance structure in place for effective decision-making, planning and project management at that level.

What’s more, it should also exist to build clear rationales and define problems and opportunities for both the funders and the public. It’s important for Cascadian stakeholders to ask “why?” before we even ask “how?”, and I’m confident a satisfactory answer does exist. If and when we collectively cross that bridge we may have a glimpse of “how?” already to work with though.