Current plans for a Texas system envision a “T-bone” track shape connecting Dallas, Austin, San Antonio, Houston and other towns. But much remains vague: where exactly the route would go, who would build it, the price and funding sources.
“We clearly don’t have a project that is ready,” said Alan Clark, transportation programs manager for the Houston-Galveston Area Council. “There’s no alignment, no one has done any environmental work. It’s all a concept right now.”
The federal government has not yet issued guidelines for how to apply for the money, and it’s unclear if the Texas Department of Transportation — or another agency or group — would lead the project. Plans are further along in other states, including California and Florida.
Nevertheless, Texas has natural advantages conducive to high-speed rail, advocates say. The terrain is relatively flat and land is cheaper than in California and Florida.
“We have the ability to produce a system that is reasonably priced,” said David Dean, a former Texas secretary of state. Dean is working as a consultant for the main advocacy group, the Texas High Speed Rail and Transportation Corp.
Dean estimates the T-bone would cost $10 billion to 20 billion and could be completed by 2020. It would ease highway congestion and pollution, attract more Fortune 500 companies to the state, and help in an Olympics bid, he said. The Houston route could even help during hurricane evacuations, he added.
In 1994, state plans to bring high-speed rail to Texas collapsed after a French company could not get sufficient funding for a system that would have linked Dallas, Houston and San Antonio in a triangular track pattern.
The T-bone shape, requiring 440 miles of track, would be 40 percent smaller than the triangle plan. Technology has also advanced, making construction and operation easier and less expensive, Dean said.
[Former Harris County Judge Robert Eckels, who is chairing the High Speed Rail and Transportation Corp,] said airlines operating in the state, which vigorously lobbied against the 1994 plan, are now open to the idea, provided the routes connect to major airports.
So I wouldn’t look to buy the Texas version of a Eurorail pass just yet, but prospects are brighter than they’ve ever been. I think the prospects for the HSRT Corp will improve if the big cities on the endpoints have more robust rail systems for its passengers to connect to, including commuter lines like what’s been proposed for Houston to Galveston. Being able to leave the car at home when traveling this way will be a huge boon. I have my doubts that they can really make anything happen in the next decade, but I’ll be more than pleased to be proven wrong about that.