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Let’s not get the private high speed rail line bogged down in politics

I’m always interested in stories about the Texas high speed rail line.

The company, Texas Central High-Speed Railway, drew attention last year when it announced plans to develop a high-speed rail line without public subsidies. Texas transportation officials took the project seriously, noting the pedigree of the investors: Japanese financiers behind a profitable bullet train line in Japan. Interest has only increased in recent months as the company has added former Texas Rangers president Tom Schieffer and Peter Cannito, former president of the New York-based MTA Metro-North Railroad, as senior advisers.

At the recent Texas Tribune Festival, Texas Central High-Speed Railway President Robert Eckels provided new details about the timeline for the company’s plans.

“We expect to go out in the field after the first of the year with our notice of intent and our environmental impact statement,” said Eckels, a former state legislator and Harris County judge.


While Republicans may favor the company’s free-market focus, that doesn’t mean the project won’t be completely free of public costs. During this year’s legislative sessions, some lawmakers opposed the allocation of any new transportation resources unless they were dedicated to road construction and maintenance.

“We don’t want operations subsidies,” Eckels said. “We do need regulatory help. We may need help with infrastructure relating to our project.”

Democrats may find themselves questioning whether low-income Texans will be priced out of the service if tickets are priced to cover expenses and make a profit without subsidies.

And both Democrats and Republicans may feel a sense of déjà vu as they draw questions about whether Texas Central High-Speed Railway should be permitted to acquire private Texans’ property. Though the firm hopes to develop most of the line along current freight line rights-of-way, Eckels acknowledged that those won’t cover the entire route. The idea of a foreign-backed private company employing eminent domain for a major transportation project could draw comparisons to the Trans-Texas Corridor, a political headache of a project that lawmakers had to repeatedly declare dead in order to appease angry voters.

See here and here for some background. I think it would be a useful debate to have about operations subsidies for inter-city rail transit like this. Given the tens of billions we are told we need to spend to ensure sufficient road capacity for our growing state, it may well be the case that building and partially subsidizing the operation of a bunch of rail lines is no more expensive and more scalable. For better or worse, we’re not going to have that debate, and as a private venture like the Texas Central High-Speed Railway is likely to be the only kind of rail we get built here, I’m happy to see it make progress towards that goal. I hope the Legislature will be open to hearing what Texas Central needs, and finds a sensible way to work with them to overcome obstacles. It is possible, maybe likely, there will be some Trans-Texas Corridor-style backlash against this, but I’m reasonably optimistic there won’t be. Texas Central is an idea that originated in the private sector rather than with Rick Perry, and from what I’ve seen they’ve been engaging with locals, whereas the TTC was basically an edict from above. There is a foreign company involved so there’s always room for paranoia, but this project is much smaller in scope and shouldn’t require that much in the way of right-of-way acquisition. We’ll see if that makes a difference. By the way, speaking of foreign companies, it is my understanding that Central Japan Railway Company, referenced in this linked story is not an investor in Texas Central High-Speed Railway. The two are cooperating in this effort, but one does not have a direct financial stake in the other. Whether that will have an effect on public and/or legislative opinion of this I couldn’t say, but we should at least all be clear on the facts.

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