The case for high-speed rail in Texas

Photo by Norihiro Kataoka

Downtown Dallas to downtown Houston in about 90 minutes. And not at 30,000 feet. It's called high-speed rail, and plans are moving forward faster than most people realize.

That's because the dynamics of moving people and goods in Texas are rapidly changing. Everyone wants to move here — a state where, unlike many others, we’re blessed with a government that embraces business and industry with a passion. That's the upside.

But with more than 1,000 people per day moving to Texas from places like the West Coast, the Rust Belt and the Northeast, the state’s highway network faces massive challenges. Roads aren't maintained as well as they used to be. More fuel-efficient cars have resulted in less gas tax revenue for road construction. Less gas tax also means more reliance on toll roads. All of this leads to more congestion on our highways, forcing us to waste more time in our cars. That's the big downside.

Want to fly a short hop? The friendly skies aren't so welcoming anymore, with long security lines, mandatory check-in times and delays. Many airlines are cutting back on short-haul flights in favor of long hauls.

So where does that leave us in Texas, where our three main population centers — Dallas-Fort Worth, Austin-San Antonio and Houston — are all at least 200 miles away from each other? With an opportunity for high-speed passenger rail. The future of business and commerce in Texas hinges on a fluid transportation system that is fast, dependable and connects people with all modes of transportation from start to finish. 

Not only is a private company called Texas Central Railway already deep into determining how to build a line from Houston to Dallas with five decades of proven high-speed rail technology behind it, but on a separate front, the Texas Department of Transportation’s Rail Division and the Federal Railroad Administration are studying how to move Texans at higher speeds along Interstate 35 from Oklahoma to South Texas.

That study is funded by federal grants, so it’s going to be a slog from start to finish. It could lead to a private enterprise, a public-private partnership or an all-public venture. Time will tell. 

On the other hand, the private funding that supports Texas Central — which has done its homework and looked at over 90 city pairs before giving the I-45 corridor a green light — will likely put the Dallas-to-Houston railway on a fast track that could mean bullet trains are up and running within the next 10 years.

There are plenty of signs that we’re finally becoming a multimodal society in Texas. It was only five years ago that TxDOT created its rail division. Many other states have been planning and operating passenger rail for decades. 

But as Texas’ plans move ahead, we must also make sure that we get it right the first time. Rail projects have to be cost-effective and show a return on investment. For private projects, that means profit for shareholders. For public projects, that means benefits in time savings, convenience, connectivity and the resulting economic development that keeps our state growing. Those are tall orders, but hey, we’re Texans, and we like a challenge.

Let’s hope that when Bubba sees a bullet train flying down I-45 at 200 miles per hour, he might just ditch his pickup on the next trip.

Peter LeCody

President of Texas Rail Advocates