Les Leyne: Beware the lesson of the monorail

Les Leyne mugshot genericEverything anyone needs to know about public infrastructure projects is summed up in one brilliant, timeless lesson.

It’s the “Marge vs. the Monorail” episode of The Simpsons, circa 1993. The town makes an impulse buy for all the right reasons of a faulty solar-powered monorail from a charming con artist, and chaos ensues.

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They should teach it in public administration schools. Every time talk turns to the E&N Rail corridor and the vision of rapid transit in Langford, the Springfield Monorail comes to mind.

The episode aired a few years before the B.C. government started building three giant aluminum high-speed catamaran fast ferries. That ended just like the monorail did — in ruins.

Too bad nobody in cabinet watched the allegory beforehand.

There’s another real-life project that triggers flashbacks to the TV episode in my mind. It’s Washington state Gov. Jay Inslee’s concept of a high-speed rail link from Vancouver to Seattle, and points south.

Not to suggest Inslee is a con artist. His green heart is in the right place. His Cascadian imagination is first-rate.

It’s just that his relentless charm offensive when it comes to the project is working wonders with Premier John Horgan.

The two hit it off beautifully the first time they met as leaders. They’re on the same page about climate change and assorted other neighbourly issues.

So it was no surprise last March when Horgan backed up his goodwill toward Inslee and Washington in general with some hard cash.

To strengthen the partnership between B.C. and Washington state, he put up $300,000 toward a study of “a potential ultra-high-speed corridor service connecting Vancouver with Seattle, Portland and beyond.”

It could cut Seattle-Vancouver travel time by two-thirds, to one hour, he said. Countless opportunities would be created. There could be 200,000 jobs flowing from what they were calling the Cascadia Innovation Corridor.

The state legislature had voted $1.2 million toward the study, and the B.C. contribution was a solid indication of enthusiasm.

On the specifics, the study was to consider the practicality and business case for a 400-km/h train and examine ridership levels, delivery mechanisms and financing.

The two met again a few months later and cemented a working relationship along with a genuine friendship.

That led to another meeting this week, with Horgan visiting Washington. And he came with more than just a protocol gift — he brought another $300,000 for another study.

The curious thing is that the first study isn’t finished yet. The full result isn’t expected until this summer. You’d think that the first study’s findings on the practicality and the business case for the project would dictate whether another study is warranted.

But the state is proceeding regardless, and B.C. is right alongside. The new study will explore models for a multi-jurisdictional authority to lead a community-engagement process and preliminary environmental review.

Oregon and Microsoft have also committed funds.

So after four personal visits in 18 months, a pattern is emerging. Every second time Horgan sits down with Inslee, B.C. goes another $300,000 down the road toward a Cascadian bullet train.

It’s relatively small change so far. B.C.’s $600,000 is only about $400,000 US, and the U.S. entities have spent a few million dollars at this point.

But the studies build momentum and that’s the main requirement for keeping a multibillion-dollar vision alive.

The other is keeping everyone on good terms. Both partners are building that relationship day by day. Inslee wants to take his clean-energy vision national (he’s getting mentions as a long-shot Democratic presidential nominee).

Horgan will be loading a lot of emphasis on that same vision in the upcoming throne speech and budget.

A traffic-relieving, carbon-cutting train would be the shining example of everything involved in that.

And who knows? The U.S. has succeeded with more audacious projects (See: moon landing).

Just don’t make Homer Simpson the conductor.

lleyne@timescolonist.com

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