High-speed rail needs to switch tracks

Liam Verses

It’s not surprising that a transit project became yet another source of conflict and controversy in Texas.

There are two players in this project: Texas Central and Texans Against High-Speed Rail. Texas Central, a private company, has proposed a high-speed bullet train on a 240-mile-long track between northwestern Houston and downtown Dallas. Texans Against High-Speed Rail is an organization made up of those opposing high-speed rail projects throughout the state. 

This project is a great idea, but it’s more idyllic than pragmatic. On the surface, Texas Central has a lot to offer: new technology that goes above current safety standards across the U.S., including Automatic Train Control and seismic sensors, economic growth, no right-of-way conflicts with other transportation since most of the track is elevated, adjacency to existing infrastructure to limit impacts to property owners, fast travel times and much more. With I-45 congestion worsening every year and air travel frequented by delays, a high-speed train traveling at 200-plus mph sounds like heaven.

The project touts the support of 52 organizations and many other urban entities such as Harris and Dallas county officials who expect billions in economic benefit, but Texans Against High-Speed Rail points out opposition by the Brazos Valley Council of Governments, Heart of Texas Council of Governments, the legislature, soil and water conservation districts and county commissioners courts.

Outside of the urban areas, rural opposition seems strong: nine out of the 11 counties the train would ultimately run through have passed resolutions opposing it. The Texas Legislature itself passed two bills — SB 975 and SB 977 — taking shots at Texas Central by limiting public funds and imposing additional safety regulations. 

There’s also a debate over whether current financing plans are viable. Rebecca Cowle of Texas Central stated that entrepreneurial, private ventures are the “Texan way.” But Ben Leman, former Grimes County judge and chairman of Texans Against High-Speed Rail, disagrees with the funding structure, citing that the private project will likely use taxpayer-backed loans and taxpayer-backed bonds. Leman cited studies by the Reason Foundation and TxDOT to claim that Texas Central is underestimating their costs by billions, thereby calling into question the financial feasibility of the project.

The Reason Foundation produced a study forecasting a $21.5 billion deficit over a 40-year period and puts the ridership numbers near 1.4 million at 2035, significantly lower than the company’s projection of 5 million by 2025. Texas Central appears to be overestimating its ridership while underestimating its costs.

This is Texas, after all, the land of the pickup truck; we have some of the highest rates of car ownership and lowest rates of transit use in the entire country, especially in the relatively low density cities of Dallas and Houston. From every angle, including location, costs, ridership and legal, this project looks like it’s facing insurmountable challenges. As it stands, this particular project seems like it will fly off the rails, but with the input of both rural and urban voices, this venture might just succeed.

Verses is a Plan II and environmental engineering freshman from San Antonio. Follow him on Twitter @liamverses