Longterm vision for Seattle-Portland-Vancouver mega-region will require a ‘consensus on growth’

(GeekWire Photo / Kurt Schlosser)

Traffic as congested as Los Angeles? Housing as unaffordable as the Bay Area or New York? Climate emissions falling well short of Paris Agreement targets?

Those are the dire predictions of a recent report issued by the Microsoft-backed Cascadia Innovation Corridor on the current trajectory of our mega-region that stretches from Portland through Seattle north to Vancouver, B.C. 

“It’s a little bit of a scary picture and not a place any of us want to be,” said Eric Sparks, a Seattle-based principal with The Boston Consulting Group, which prepared the Cascadia Vision 2050 report, speaking at a virtual meeting last week to discuss housing and transportation at the corridor’s annual conference.

But three weeks after unveiling a proposal for new hubs housing up to 400,000 people on underdeveloped land between the Pacific Northwest’s major cities, the major thinkers behind the Cascadia Innovation Corridor were reluctant to specify where those hubs would be or comment on the future of high-speed rail to connect them.

“I don’t want to start naming specific geographies,” said Sparks. “We are potentially looking for opportunities in that band along the high-speed transportation corridor connecting the mega-region from north to south.”

The Cascadia Innovation Corridor has promoted high-speed rail connecting Vancouver, Seattle, and Portland since floating the idea in 2017 at the group’s inaugural conference. Most recently, Microsoft hosted a daylong Cascadia Rail summit in November 2019 on the heels of voters electing to gut state transportation funding. One year later, much more has changed with the U.S.-Canada border closed to non-essential travel and Washington state facing huge budget shortfalls, especially in transportation.

(Cascadia Vision 2050 Report Graphic)

State transportation officials insist the project is still on track to deliver a report on governance and financing by Dec. 1 to the British Columbia, Washington, and Oregon legislatures. 

“Budget cuts have not affected this project, since the money was already allocated prior to the pandemic,” Washington State Department of Transportation spokesperson Janet Matkin told GeekWire. “The Legislature will have to make any decisions related to future funding for this project. We do not know what will be in the governor’s proposed budget or the Legislature’s final budget for next biennium.”

High-speed rail is central to the Cascadia Vision 2050’s conception of smaller cities some 40 to 100 miles from the economic engines of Seattle, Vancouver, and Portland where workers head into the central city only once or twice per week. Autonomous vehicle adoption is already factored into the report’s dire projection of 2035 traffic as bad as Los Angeles today and urban air mobility will never have adequate throughput, said Sparks. However, the industry-backed advocacy effort preferred to stay out of public-sector transportation planning.

“At some point we see these two groups merging [Cascadia Innovation Corridor and the Ultra-High Speed Ground Transportation Study], but for now it would be inappropriate for us to tell that project how to do its work,” said Paula Hammond, senior vice president of transportation consulting firm WSP USA. “[Our job] is to help support with community and business engagement.” (WSP is the lead consultant for the ongoing study, but Hammond is not part of the team, said Matkin.)

(GeekWire Photo / Kurt Schlosser)

Even as the Cascadia mega-regional thinkers remain gun-shy about the specifics of their bold housing proposal and what it will take to shepherd a high-speed rail proposal through an economic downturn, they do believe the time is ripe to create broader agreement on the region’s future, one which is notoriously prickly about the “g” word.

“Our challenge is no less than building a regional consensus on growth,” said Kate Joncas, director of Urban Strategy for Portland-based urban planning firm MIG.

Such a consensus is no easy task, Joncas cautioned, as she rattled off the players involved: two countries, numerous tribal nations, military installations, two states, one province, eight regional planning agencies, 10 counties, 164+ cities and towns, and some 9 million people.

She cited models like Envision Utah, an over two-decade-old effort to engage Utahans on their state’s future, and ongoing public conversations in California about the nexus of housing and transportation as the kind of big-picture civic dialogue that Cascadia needs if it hopes to absorb another 3.6 million residents by 2050 without sacrificing the region’s fabled quality of life, increasing carbon emissions, and further exacerbating housing affordability and traffic congestion concerns.

(Cascadia Vision 2050 Report Graphic)

“Some of the opposition to growth strategies is based on misconceptions,” Joncas said. “You need really good facts and excellent visuals so people can see what the kind of growth we are trying to achieve will look like.”

Fortunately, there is a bedrock of previous efforts to draw on.

“We have a long history of sustainable growth and leadership,” said Alan Hart, founding principal of VIA Architecture, which has offices in Seattle and Vancouver. He cited the Oregon Comprehensive Growth Management Program (1973), Vancouver Livable Region Strategic Plan (1976), and the Washington Growth Management Act (1990) as evidence that Cascadia’s constituent parts have been tackling these issues for decades.

That kind of long-term perspective should infuse Cascadia’s thinking, even if the ongoing upheaval occasioned by the pandemic makes it hard to imagine a future where people travel more for work and leisure.

“I’m thinking every day about the here and now and the future of work, but we’re also restarting our 30-year planning process,” said Kevin Desmond, CEO of metro Vancouver’s transit agency TransLink. “How will people get around in 30 years? We can’t lose sight of that long-term future.”

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