Will Texas HSR Get Moving in 2014?
In Texas, as in Florida and on the SoCal-Vegas route, private investors are claiming they can build high speed rail without public subsidy. Unfortunately for our austerity-addled age, this claim alone is considered more important than how quickly a project can get built, how many people it will serve, or how much oil and carbon emissions it will save. And as it turns out, Texas HSR will not be free of public costs:
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.
So the issues of public subsidies are in fact not really the issues that most Texans care about. It’s the way that a megaproject could be enabled to have access to public eminent domain power that gets used for private purposes. That was a central reason why Texans of all political persuasions came to oppose the Trans-Texas Corridor a few years ago, and it would likely cause major problems for a Texas HSR project as well.
Public subsidies, as the article points out, are actually very important for an effective transportation system in that they allow for lower fares to serve a broader range of the population. California HSR unfortunately has to cover its operating costs through revenues and though it will have no problem at all doing so, as all HSR systems cover their operations through revenues, it does limit the ability to subsidize fares.
We also saw in the XpressWest project that private investors tend to have a very difficult time financing megaprojects once they reach into the billions of dollars. They then turn to government loan facilities which raises the hackles of right-wingers who are perfectly happy to waste money on freeway subsidies but balk at supporting rail infrastructure in any way. I would love to see high speed rail in Texas and so I hope this effort succeeds, but I am not hopeful that they can do so without some use of public funds.