May 11, 2008
Where the people will be

I love stories about demographics.

By 2050, the area between Houston, San Antonio and Dallas-Fort Worth will become a single "mega-region" containing 70 percent of the state's population, city planning experts said at a national forum on Friday.

Experts attending the Washington conference, dubbed America 2050, said the Texas mega-region, which will be one of 10 in the U.S., will house 24.5 million of the state's projected 35 million residents.

I wish the definition of this region were more precise. I presume it really means the Houston, San Antonio, and D/FW metro areas; if it does, then ten of the state's 15 most populous counties, accounting for a bit more than half of the total population, are in it. And that doesn't include runnerup counties like Brazoria, Bell, McClennan, Ellis, and Wichita (see here for an Excel spreadsheet with populations by county as of 2004). My guess is we're already at about 60 to 65% of the whole enchilada as it is.

[Regional Planning] Association president Bob Yaro said the Texas Triangle is different from the nation's other regions.

Large swaths of undeveloped land, he said, exist between the metropolitan areas in Texas, unlike Southern California or the Northeast.

Because the distances between the Texas cities are too great for automobile commuting and too small for cost-effective air links, he said, high-speed rail should be an important new approach.

If there's some way that private companies could make money off of it, they would be interested in building a high-speed rail network, said Thomas Donohue, president of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. But he added that the prospect of profit seems unlikely unless the firms are allowed to use existing rail lines. That, he said, "ain't going to happen because we're having enough trouble moving freight."

True enough, though of course there is another option, that of government investment in such a rail network. Wasn't the Trans Texas Corridor supposed to have a rail component? I'm not sure if that's gotten lost amid the shouting over toll roads or if it's been quietly dropped; the point I'm making is that just as investing in roads is an asset to managing growth, so may investing in alternate forms of transportation be. It doesn't have to be all or nothing.

Yaro said he was impressed by Metro's light-rail project.

"The fact that Houston's there, moving ahead with this thing in what has been until recently the most automobile-dominated place in the country is really a big step forward," he said.

Some of us certainly think so. We still have a long way to go with it, though.

Posted by Charles Kuffner on May 11, 2008 to The great state of Texas

In areas where they have high-speed rail connecting communities (eg the Northeast; also northern CA), who funded it? Gov't, private, or both?

Posted by: Tubin on May 11, 2008 8:11 AM

In areas where they have high-speed rail connecting communities (eg the Northeast; also northern CA), who funded it? Gov't, private, or both?

The US doesn't have any true high speed rail. What Amtrak has is is some trains (the Acela) that can run relatively fast on existing tracks. The existing tracks are legacies of long ago companies that built them 100 years ago and ran passenger service up and down the eastern seaboard. Eventually air and auto travel passed rail by and Amtrak took over passenger service on existing rail tracks that are owned by the descendant corporations that are the result of many decades of railroad mergers.

True high speed rail is what they have in France and Japan where 300 mph trains blaze away on dedicated tracks. In DC to Boston corridor the Acela trains share space with freight trains and run on standard tracks. The cars are designed to tilt while cornering which allows them to go faster than normal passenger trains on those routes. But frankly the average speed of the Acela trains isn't any better than the high speed steam passenger trains from 70 years ago. For example, the Milwaukee Road's Hiawatha trains running between Chicago and Minneapolis in the 1930s consistently ran at over 100 mph.

The existing freight lines in Texas are already operating at or near capacity with freight which means there really isn't any way to add high speed rail to the existing rails. This means high speed rail between the DFW-Houson-San Antonio triangle would require all new rails on dedicated rights of ways (no grade level crossings but bridges or underpasses for every single road and street the rail crosses). You can't have crossing gates protecting 300 mph trains. Every inch of the rail line must be physically separated from all other traffic, pedestrians, and wildlife. The cost would be in the millions of dollars per mile.

The only type of high speed rail that would actually make sense would be rail lines that follow existing freeways where the government already owns the rights of ways and there are very few crossings to deal with. A high-speed rail line could be built along I-35, for example. But it would still be incredibly expensive.

Posted by: Kent on May 11, 2008 2:32 PM

With the way the gas prices are going up, by 2050, there would still be Dallas, SA and HOU, with a big empty vacant lot right between them. "Big as Texas" is great when your gas is 1$/gal. Once it hits 6-7$/gal, there would be almost no suburban life left, and given the expanse of current suburban spread, no high speed rail/other mass transit would be able to cover that cost-efectively. This is like deciding that woodlands gets the rail and survives, and spring does not, and dies out.

Posted by: victor on May 11, 2008 3:31 PM

I am unaware of high speed rail in California. However, the high speed rail in the NE corridor is run by AmTrak, as is the lower speed rail that runs from San Diego to Seattle. California is studying a high speed rail system to be supported by government bonds.

Posted by: RedScare on May 11, 2008 3:46 PM

As I understand it, there is no "high speed rail" in the U.S. "High speed rail" is not merely passenger service on existing railroads and it's not a commuter heavy rail service either. You can't run high speed trains on existing rail lines, they require more than upgrades of existing lines. It appears that such lines have to be built from scratch. That kind of infrastructure investment requires government involvement. The TransTexas Corridor was designed to move goods across Texas and not to move people between its major cities. We could surely use an alternative to driving to Dallas or to spending more time waiting for your flight at Hobby than it takes to fly to Dallas. To move forward with this in Texas will require new political leadership in Austin and a change in attitudes among Texas business leaders as well. Shall we hold our breath?

Posted by: Temple Houston on May 11, 2008 8:17 PM

On one hand, this "mega region" is a silly and artificial construct with no center and no identity. They could just as easily have moved the eastern boundary to Beaumont so that the triangle included Lufkin, Nacogdoches, and Tyler, which would have allowed them to claim closer to 80 percent of the population.

On the other hand, it illustrates the dramatic demographic changes that are occuring and the continuing shift in power to the areas east of I-35 and from rural counties to urban and suburban counties.

On the rail issue, we definitely need to address our 50+ year neglect of our rail infrastructure and look for opportunities for passenger rail. I think that the real opportunities aren't in the big, flashy projects like high speed rail, but in the local projects that build off of existing infrastructure, such as:

- ASA Rail, which would run from Georgetown to San Antonio along the existing Union Pacific tracks. It could be operating from Austin to San Marcos as soon as 2012. As noted, the challenge is in moving the freight rail, possibly routing it through Bastrop.

- The Austin-Elgin Sausage Link. Capital Metro already owns these tracks and planning is underway. Would require voter approval and bringing Elgin into CapMetro's service area. Better still, the line could be continued eastward to Brenham where it could tie into a Houston-College Station line.

- Houston-Galveston. Who hasn't sat on the Gulf Freeway and wondered why this isn't available. Particularly with the Galveston cruise terminal being located adjacent to the railhead, there are many reasons why this should work.

The big challenge is in shifting the culture at TxDoT so that they recognize that they are responsible for transportation and not just highways. We've got to avoid disasters like the decision to tear up the Katy rail line in favor of decades of freeway construction.

Posted by: Jeb on May 12, 2008 10:08 AM