Panel To Oppose High-Speed Train To Moses Lake -- But A Major North-South Route Could Make Sense, It Concludes

The so-called "bullet train" to Moses Lake - a far-out idea that had surprisingly strong political support - is dead.

But the possibility of building one between Vancouver, B.C., or Everett and Portland has merit.

That's what a state panel will conclude at its last meeting tomorrow.

The state High Speed Ground Transportation Steering Committee was formed last year to study the possibility of running high-speed trains, commonly known as bullet trains, in the Pacific Northwest.

Under one idea, the trains would operate by magnetic levitation - called "maglev" - at speeds up to 200 mph. Maglev uses magnetism to suspend a train a fraction of an inch above a rail, so it doesn't use wheels but is propelled by electric current.

The idea got a lot of attention in 1989, when several state senators, including Glyn Chandler, Mike Patrick, and Roy Ferguson, proposed running a maglev train to the former Larson Air Force Base at Moses Lake and creating a new regional airport to supplement Seattle-Tacoma International Airport.

Using Moses Lake as a satellite airport was proposed to reduce air traffic around Seattle and make it unnecesary to build a third runway at Sea-Tac, a proposal that's generated widespread opposition in neighboring communities.

The idea was that on a 200 mph train, Moses Lake would be only about an hour from Seattle. While the idea at first appeared far-fetched, a maglev train has run on a German test track since 1984.

While it looked at maglev, the committee concluded conventional trains using wheels offer many of the same advantages at lower cost. Japan's bullet train, for example, has been carrying passengers at more than 150 mph on steel wheels since 1964.

When the study was done, the committee concluded the Moses Lake route didn't make much sense, partly because of cost, technological complications involving building a maglev or conventional train system over the Cascade Mountains and concerns about potential ridership.

But a high-speed system on the western side of the state did make sense, according to the study.

"The corridor . . . between Seattle and Portland offers the best near-term opportunity for implementing a high-quality intercity rail service," the committee said, adding that a Spokane run also might make sense at some point.

The 25-member committee plans to recommend that the next Legislature appropriate $500,000 to fund continuing research into high-speed ground systems, said John Magnano, a Clark County commissioner and chair of the committee.

The group included technical visionaries and frugal business leaders and hired a national consulting firm for professional expertise. Last summer some members went to Europe at their own expense to see how high-speed train systems work there.

The committee also figured that if road congestion doesn't get worse, annual ridership on a 185-mile high-speed system in the year 2020 would reach 5.1 million people in a north-south corridor and 2.2 million on an east-west route to Spokane.

The study concluded many of the riders could be attracted from among existing air passengers. While a flight between Portland and Everett or Vancouver, B.C., takes only about a half-hour of actual air time, making connections to get to downtown areas, such as riding taxis or airport shuttles, often make the trips take several hours.

Costs for the high-speed system are estimated at $9 billion to $12 billion for a 334-mile north-south system connecting Portland and Vancouver, B.C. A cost of $5 billion to $7 billion was estimated for a 256-mile east-west route between Seattle and Spokane. The total cost would make it by far the most expensive public works project ever undertaken in this region - twice the cost of the three-county rapid-transit system now being considered for King, Pierce and Snohomish counties.

The committee's report will be presented tomorrow at the SeaTac Red Lion and then forwarded to the Legislature to consider in 1993.