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Plans for Cascadia go full steam ahead

Cascadia isn’t supposed to become a new country — but it may feel like one within several years.
Plans for “seamless” border crossings, high-speed rail service and joint Canada-U.S. tourism promotions are reaching new levels of detail and support, at the turn of the millennium.

The reason? The economic links between B.C., Washington and Oregon — the binational region first dubbed Cascadia six years ago — are mushrooming, thanks to the North American Free Trade Agreement and Cascadia’s rapid population growth.

“It’s already happening,” former B.C. premier Mike Harcourt said in an interview. “It’s a reality, not an ideology, and it’s an increasing reality.”

The region’s economic kinship is seen by boosters as more important to the Lower Mainland in some ways than its links to the rest of Canada.

“We’re dealing with our best custome (the U.S. Pacific Northwest), and vice versa,” Harcourt said.

But missing has been the decisionmaking structure under which the boom can be planned for cooperatively on both sides of the border. And the results include problems such as trucking companies’ complaints that they’re losing $40 million a year stewing in border lineups.

Enter the Cascadia Project, and its numerous participants in both countries.

The B.C. government is expected to appoint Harcourt, now a sustainable-development associate at the University of B.C., to help lead the provincial role.

South of the border, the new Connecting the Gateways plan was released by Seattle’s Discovery Institute think-tank earlier this year, outlining a wish list of Cascadia transportation improvements.

Meanwhile, similar planning efforts continue to pick up steam at UBC’s Cascadia Institute and the Whatcom County regional government in Bellingham.

Among the numerous Cascadia initiatives:
-“Seamless” border crossing measures including the expansion of PACE lanes, development of an electronic-transponder system allowing commercial vehicles to cross without stopping, and various reudctions in border paperwork.
-A second daily Amtrak passenger train between Seattle and Vancouver. THe Washington state government has already committed to help fund the subsidized service; negotiations continue with the B.C. government to pick up a share. Eventually, about a half-dozen trains a day between Portland and Vancouver are envisioned, reaching speeds of up to 200 km/h.
-Cooperative promotion of a “Two-Nation Vacation,” where international travellers are encouraged to hop between the top attractions throughout Cascadia.

“We dream the big dream, the trick is how to finance it all,” said Bruce Agnew, director of the Cascadia Project at Seattle’s Discovery Institute.

And the proposed “trick” is perhaps the most ostentatious of all the plans: the creation of a rare binational organization, the Cascadia Corridor Development Corporation. Modelled loosely on joint U.S.-Canada economic endeavours such as the St. Lawrence Seaway, and resembling a Crown corporation, the new body would mix and match public and private funding to pursue an ambitious $100-billion, 20-year transportation investment program.

The idea is typical of the size, cost and complexity of the Cascadia “big dream,” and even the boosters acknowledge how difficult it will be to implement. But they also say the rubber is starting to hit the road, after six years of discussion and conceptual planning, citing examples such as the pending arrival of the second Amtrak train.

And Jim Miller, a Whatcom County regional official, echoes Harcourt in arguing that doing nothing would be a lot worse that pursuing the vision.

“There’s been so much growth in [Cascadia], to pass up making these improvements now would leave way too many transportation problems in the future,” he said.

B.C. and Washington have grown by more than two million people between them in just the last 10 years. That’s slightly more than the current population of Greater Vancouver. And Cascadia’s population could double within 30 or 40 years.

Miller’s group has already made Cascadia-related grant applications under the U.S. government’s TEA-21 transportation investment program, which is worth about$300-billion Cdn. The B.C. and Canadian governments are hoped to follow suit with funding if the U.S. bids are successful.

The provincial government is expected to announce some of its plans soon. Meanwhile, a more detailed version of the Connecting the Gateways study is targeted for completion by the end of 1999. An executive summary of Phase 1 is available at www.discovery.org/gatewaysreport.html on the Internet.