Oregon officials discuss regional airports, high-speed rail
Two Oregon officials in addition to Gov. Kate Brown spoke during a climate-change conference sponsored Sept. 12-13 by Cascadia Innovation Corridor in Blaine, Wash.
Executive Director Curtis Robinhold of the Port of Portland joined his counterparts in Seattle and Vancouver to sign an agreement pledging cooperation in mitigating the effects of airport facilities, airport operations, vehicle trips by employees and passengers to and from airports and sustainable aviation fuel.
Oregon Metro President Lynn Peterson was the moderator for a panel on a proposed high-speed rail line between Vancouver, British Columbia, and Portland. Most of the proposed 350-mile route is within Washington state, where lawmakers have put up $4 million in planning money and $150 million as a potential match for a federal grant under the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act that President Joe Biden signed last year. The British Columbia provincial government has put up $300,000 in planning money, the same amount it approved for each of two previous studies.
"Our three airports have stepped up as global leaders in ambitious regional and trans-border efforts to accelerate aviation decarbonization," said Ann Ardizzone, panel moderator and vice president of supply chain at Alaska Airlines, which uses Portland and Seattle as major hubs.
Robinhold said the Port of Portland already has reduced carbon emissions generated by Portland International Airport by 60% from 1990 levels. The port is undertaking a $2 billion renovation, including a new roof for the main terminal consisting of 3.3 million board feet of mass timber. That is wood glued and compressed to allow it to handle structural-bearing loads.
"It will roughly double the footprint of the airport while lowering our energy intensity by 60%," he said.
A federal grant of $18 million, awarded in July, will enable the airport to replace boilers and chillers with electric heat pumps. Two of four concourses are electrified, Robinhold said, "and we see full electrification of all of our concourses over the next five years."
Portland International Airport is connected to TriMet's Metropolitan Area Express (MAX) light rail system via a link that opened in 2001.
The one thing Robinhold said airports have no direct involvement in is aviation fuel, which is the responsibility of individual airlines.
"We really focus on those things we do operate," he said. "We can't as landlords do a lot about pricing."
However, Robinhold and his counterparts at the Port of Seattle and Vancouver Airport Authority did say there is a future possibility of joint purchasing of what is known as sustainable aviation fuel. Made from agricultural and forest residue and municipal waste, this biofuel resembles traditional aviation fuel but is less carbon-intensive in emissions.
"We need a national policy on carbon pricing; I do not care what it looks like," Robinhold added. "I think if it were applied fairly, airlines would not be put at a disadvantage by having to pay more for the same flight as their competitors."
Alaska Airlines' Ardizzone said engines in jet aircraft do not require modification to use such biofuels. Recent congressional approval of federal tax credits should help supplies for airlines; Ardizzone said only about 1% of what is needed is now available.
"We need a level playing field for access to that fuel and the price of that fuel," she said.
During a subsequent panel, participants talked about how a high-speed rail line would have to involve communities, largely in Washington state, where the bulk of the proposed line would be. Vancouver and Portland each would be a few miles beyond the borders of Washington state — and in Portland's case, across the Columbia River, where a replacement bridge is being contemplated to connect it with Vancouver, Wash.
The current spans of the Interstate Bridge for I-5 were built in 1917 and 1958. The Glenn Jackson Bridge for I-205 was opened in late 1982.
Oregon lawmakers had agreed on state funding for a new bridge in 2013, but the project was shelved in mid-year when the Washington Senate deadlocked on funding. The states have revived the project, which involves preparation of a supplemental environmental impact statement, but Oregon has not yet acted on state funding. It is uncertain whether the project will qualify for a share of $100 billion that the U.S. Department of Transportation can designate for big projects under the 2021 infrastructure law.
"We're not talking about whether we are going to build the (high-speed rail) project," said Alex Hudson, executive director of Seattle-based Transportation Choices Coalition and a panelist. "We're talking about when and where."
A 2010 study requested by the governors of the three West Coast states and the premier of British Columbia said:
"A high-functioning regional rail corridor significantly reduces fuel consumption and emissions by taking cars and trucks off the road and reducing single-occupancy vehicle miles traveled."
The proposed regional high-speed rail line is not intended to replace Amtrak Cascades service, which Washington and Oregon help subsidize between Vancouver, Canada, and Eugene. Amtrak trains run on tracks owned by private railroads — BNSF Railway in Washington and Union Pacific in Oregon — and a high-speed line is likely to follow a new route.
Meanwhile, Peterson — a former Clackamas County commissioner and transportation policy adviser to Oregon Gov. John Kitzhaber — was tapped by Washington Gov. Jay Inslee in 2013 to run that state's transportation agency. She lost that job in 2016, when the Washington Senate refused to confirm her. She was elected in 2018 as president of Metro, the Portland regional government that coordinates transportation planning.
Peterson, the panel's moderator, said the high-speed rail project requires cooperation by numerous agencies, and also an informed public along the proposed route. She also said planners must take heed of the problems in California.
A similar project to connect Los Angeles with San Francisco has run into long delays and higher costs than anticipated back in 2008, when voters approved $9 billion in bonds for what was to have been a $33 billion project. The latest estimate is $113 billion. State lawmakers released $4.2 billion to complete a 171-mile segment through the Central Valley.
"My goal here is to make sure you all know how to work better in the future, and not just on this project," she said.
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