The private firm hoping to build a high-speed rail line between Dallas and Houston has been celebrating a summer of successes: completing a successful round of fundraising, seeing a key federal study move forward, surviving the legislative session unscathed.
But three years after Texas Central Partners first revealed its ambitious venture, a series of financial, logistical and political challenges remain. To Kyle Workman, president of Texans Against High-Speed Rail, those challenges are enough to make him question whether construction on the project will ever begin.
“Frankly, they’re on a salvage mission,” Workman said of Texas Central executives. “They’re trying to generate news that says, ‘We think we’re close.’ The reality is, they’re not that close.”
Yet Tim Keith, who has served as Texas Central’s CEO for just more than a month, said the project is moving forward as planned and is more or less on schedule.
“I think my biggest challenge is conveying an abstract idea to Texans,” Keith said. “We are firmly committed to doing everything in our control and power to be selling tickets beginning in 2021.”
While many Houston- and Dallas-area officials have backed the project, officials in communities in between have mostly come out against it. Statewide officials have largely avoided taking a position.
“I want to see transportation needs satisfied,” Texas Gov. Greg Abbott said when asked about the bullet train at a June press conference in Dallas.
Though he didn’t make clear whether he supports the bullet train, Abbott touched on the two issues that drew concerns from the Legislature this year. He said he aimed to ensure that the project neither spent any public tax dollars nor infringed on private property rights.
“As this process moves along, I will diligently work to ensure that both of those criteria are satisfied,” Abbott said.
Yes, for all the jockeying that various legislators and local officials have done, the statewides have been pretty quiet about Texas Central. Normally, a business that plans to invest billions in Texas would be catnip for Abbott and Dan Patrick and so on, but the politics here are more complex than that. My guess is that they will jump on the bandwagon of whichever side prevails, right around the point at which it becomes clear which side will win.
The Federal Railroad Administration launched an environmental review of the project in 2014. Last month, the railroad administration narrowed its focus for the train route to a “utility corridor,” which is reserved for high-voltage electric transmission lines. Any route within that corridor would likely involve the train crossing some private land.
Keith, who joined Texas Central as CEO in July, said he is hopeful the railroad administration will offer tentative approval for a route within the corridor this fall and that the company would be able to quickly follow with discussions with affected landowners. A railroad administration spokesman declined to comment.
Major infrastructure projects hit a turning point when people can study specific routes, said Robert Puentes, director of the Metropolitan Infrastructure Initiative at the Brookings Institution in Washington, D.C.
“It’s easy to oppose or support something in the abstract,” Puentes said. “When you start really thinking about the details of where the construction happens and how it interacts with the existing land and the existing users, it becomes much more real.”
Company officials are expected to formally request next year that the railroad administration agree to waive or tweak various federal regulations. Keith acknowledged the train’s speed is part of the need for regulatory waivers but said so too is the system’s advanced technology, including its signaling and automatic train control system, both of which would be new to the United States. The Shinkansen’s famed record of zero casualties in over 50 years of operation in Japan is likely to play a central role in the company’s argument to federal regulators.
“The approach that this system takes is crash avoidance and that is different from some of the existing regulations for trains currently operating in the U.S.,” Keith said.
I feel pretty confident that Texas Central will pass the environmental review process. I doubt knowing the specifics will cool the ardor of their opponents, so they need to do what they can to avoid making any more enemies, because at some point that just becomes untenable. Looks like we may know something by mid 2016 or so. Paradise in Hell has more.