Recent media communication in Texas is trending around the subject of high-speed rail between Houston and Dallas.
The question most often raised is what is the status of Texas Central Partners and its proposed high-speed rail project? Perhaps a more important question is, as Texans, what is our interest in continuing to pursue high-speed rail corridors. Can our voices be heard? Whether you are for or against it, your voice is needed now in order to explore the future of high-speed rail under an updated vision.
What if the vision eliminated fatalities, mitigated hurricane evacuation challenges and had the public own the right-of-way? What if high-speed rail met your desires?
HIGH SPEED RAIL: EXISTING VERSION 1.0
In the mid-1980s, Japanese Railway and Japanese bank interests came to Texas to explore high-speed rail between Dallas and Fort Worth but did not pursue it to fruition. Since that time, federal, state and private sector interests have continued to explore high-speed opportunities in corridors across the country. Frequent studies and analyses have concluded a need for a high-speed rail connection between Dallas and Houston. The Federal Railroad Administration began requesting states to provide high-speed rail plans. In Texas, private-sector interest re-surfaced in 2009 focusing on the Houston to Dallas line.
The Japanese reentered the conversation and eventually decided to form Texas Central Partners. Environmental studies have advanced, legal questions appear answered, and private sector ownership of rail right-of-way remains. The very positive aspects of this effort are the proposed development of a world class project that will reduce highway congestion, offer exceptional travel times between the two large metropolitan areas and reduce harmful mobile air emissions.
A limiting factor is a technology that restricts other providers to use the corridor, which prevents a competitive market from forming. Also, there continues to be a concern that a workable business plan has yet to materialize and right-of-way is still privately owned.
HIGH SPEED RAIL: VERSION 2.0
There have been many new opportunities that have emerged along with many advances in the high-speed rail arena over the past 15 years. A proposed high-speed rail line project between Fort Worth-Arlington-Dallas is entering the environmental review phase. Connecting this line to the Dallas-to-Houston route presents an opportunity to expand rail service from Fort Worth to Houston as a “one seat” ride, no need to transfer.
Plus, current planning is underway to look at the feasibility of creating a branch-off point of this line that would connect to Austin and on to San Antonio. By planning for the new connection points now, there is the opportunity to reduce overall long-term costs. This new vision is a major reason for introducing High-Speed Rail Version 2.0 as an alternative to Version 1.0.
Version 2.0 also helps foster the emergence of a megaregion by better connecting the major population centers of Texas and thereby creating super economies and maximizing gross domestic product though the resulting synergy. The concept of megaregions has been around for several years but a new book published in 2022, Megaregions and America’s Future, gives the reader a deeper understanding of how the economics work to create these better results.
Under this newly proposed version, the rail lines would be publicly owned with the private sector being responsible for providing and operating the vehicles. Rather than one company having exclusive rights to the rail lines, it is envisioned that it would operate more like airports, which allow for many carriers. Thus, the traveling public could benefit from a competitive marketplace.
Below is a list of factors that need to be remembered as you consider your interest in the value of high-speed rail:
It can deliver consistent and reliable travel times compared to the intercity freeway system, which is often affected by congestion, traffic accidents and other automobile related incidents.
It can speed up hurricane evacuation operations which are an ever-growing challenge due to the rapidly increasing population of south Texas and an increased frequency of weather events.
Its safety record is much better than that of automobile related travel which produces a staggering number of deaths each year. It also complements the State’s Vision Zero Program which is focused on reducing deaths from automobile accidents.
It makes advanced medical services more readily available by providing easier access to specialized care that is being developed and delivered in each of these large metropolitan regions.
It can also be used to move light weight, high-end goods as well as people and, thereby, create more roadway capacity for high-volume freight movement by traditional rail and intercity trucks.
Funding options today are very different than those of the past. New federal legislation provides tax and fee supported funding for which high-speed rail is eligible. Getting our fair share should be an imperative, especially if Texans own the right-of-way.
As referenced, having multiple rail providers in Version 2.0 brings greater competition enhancing consumer protections similar to our airports. In addition, a new business model using the latest federal funding tools, and potential State surpluses, creates an opportunity to assist landowners with additional royalty payments.
Agree or disagree with high-speed rail, but don’t be silent. However, I believe we have a chance to take ownership of this decision and lead our State and nation to a new future – one where high-speed rail is transformed from concept to reality. What are your ideas?
Michael Morris, P.E. is director of transportation for the North Central Texas Council of Governments.