Microsoft and Cascadia group unveil proposal to build economic hubs between big Pacific NW cities

Downtown Seattle and Mount Rainier as viewed from the top observation deck of the Space Needle. (GeekWire Photo / Kurt Schlosser)

The Cascadia Innovation Corridor Conference has made headlines over the past few years for its ambitious goal to connect Portland to Seattle to Vancouver, B.C., with a proposed high-speed rail line. The group, which is sponsored by Microsoft, is changing course this year, unveiling a bold new proposal for the “mega-region.”

High-speed rail is still part of the organization’s aspirations for Cascadia — as the larger region is dubbed — but this year’s focus is on a different goal: building mid-sized cities between the big urban centers that define the region.

A report by the Boston Consulting Group, released by the Cascadia organization Monday morning, proposes building hubs for 300,000-400,000 people on underdeveloped land throughout Oregon, Washington, and parts of British Columbia to promote sustainable growth. The goal is not to create bedroom communities for the region’s big cities, which could increase emissions from commuters. Instead, the organization hopes employers will commit to locating in these mid-sized cities so that they can become economic engines on their own.

The report’s authors estimate 3-4 million new residents will move to Cascadia by 2050. They propose this approach as a way to mitigate the sprawl that mega-regions like the Texas Triangle have experienced, while also avoiding the soaring housing costs plaguing cities like San Francisco.

“Cascadia is the world’s first self-aware mega-region,” said Richard Florida, an urban studies theorist at the University of Toronto, in a statement. “The strategy it outlines in the Cascadia 2050 vision paints the way toward a brighter future. COVID-19 makes it imperative that metropolitan areas, and cities and suburbs that make up mega-regions, work together to address pressing health issues as well as economic and fiscal challenges despite temporary border closures.”

Solutions for the ‘mega-region’

The group wants Cascadia to become the first mega-region in which local officials solve growth challenges on a regional basis, rather than city-by-city.

“This vision is not easily achieved — to date, no other mega-region in the world has done it,” the report says. “But tackling problems others can’t or won’t is part of Cascadia’s DNA.”

Although the Cascadia region has created approximately 800,000 new jobs in the past decade, more than half of people living in the region are housing-cost burdened, defined as spending more than 30% of their income on housing, according to the report. That’s far more than the 32% of U.S. residents who are housing-cost burdened. The region’s housing crunch has led to homelessness spikes of 36% and 13% in Vancouver and Seattle, respectively, since 2008, according to the report.

The population booms have also put a strain on the region’s transportation infrastructure, a trend that the report’s authors anticipate will continue. They predict the Cascadia region will have significantly worse traffic congestion than Los Angeles or San Jose by 2035.

The Cascadia Innovation Corridor proposal aims to mitigate some of those challenges. It proposes a five-year planning process to start, which includes selecting the hub cities and deciding on a mode of high-speed transit to connect them. In that time, government incentives would be offered to encourage development and persuade employers to set up shop in the mid-sized cities. Re-zoning throughout the region’s marquee and mid-sized cities would also be necessary to accommodate dense housing, the report says.

By 2035, anchor employers would ideally be committed to the new hubs and construction of housing and transit would be underway. Under this framework, the cities would be near maturity by 2045 with fully operational high-speed transit.

Near-term focus on re-opening border

It’s an ambitious plan for the future, but in the near term, the Cascadia Innovation Corridor is focused on re-opening the border between Washington and B.C., which has been closed to non-essential travel since March because of the pandemic.

The closure has slashed travel between B.C. and Washington from about 16.5 million trips last year to around 500,000 this year, according to the Cascadia group. Panelists who spoke during the virtual conference said they were not anticipating a re-opening before the election.

“There’s very little momentum at the federal level for adjusting border restrictions or even talking about adjusting border restrictions,” said Chris Sands, director of the Canada Institute at the Woodrow Wilson Canada Centre, during the event.

Despite the political headwinds, the organization unveiled some ideas for re-opening the border safely. A so-called “pre-clearance pilot project” would require travelers to get tested for COVID-19 before their trips and at the airport. Flights would be certified as COVID-free, which would allow travelers to skip the 14-day quarantine mandate in Canada.

Air travel in Seattle is already starting to rebound, according to Julie Collins, customer experience director at SeaTac Airport. Daily travel averages are up to 17,000-19,000 from a low of 2,500 in April. But that’s still down 75% since August 2019, she said.

“It is clear this disease has upended lives, but Cascadia is resilient,” the report says. “While we continue to fight COVID-19 and its consequences, we also need to address the undeniable fact that our mega-region is not prepared for the future to come.”

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