In recent days there’s been a spate of posts and articles touting the Texas high speed rail project as a better approach than the California project. Some of this is undoubtedly the California-Texas rivalry at work, but it’s also fueled by the routine misunderstanding in the media about the nature of California HSR’s problems. Those problems exist solely because opponents of California HSR found powerful allies in the Congressional Republicans, and have been able to block future funding and create a cascading set of problems that stem from that denial.
One of the reasons for Republicans’ hostility to high speed rail is their ideological opposition to government funding for trains and buses. And so the Texas HSR project gets touted for its reliance on private funding in outlets like the Dallas Morning News this week:
The United States has been touting high-speed rail for years. Texas even made a push in the early 1990s. Yet there’s still no bullet train in the country, at least nothing like what’s being proposed here.
That’s because the economics usually stink. Flying is cheaper, cars are more convenient and the U.S. population is too spread out. High-speed rail usually requires billions in subsidies, and we have better uses for that money.
That’s why the Texas Central Railway is quick to say: “This is not a government project.”
In fact, it’s a private play on infrastructure, targeted at the best corridor in the country.
But hey, guess what, even the Texas HSR project will need federal money:
While the Texas Central Railway has agreed to operate that leg with high-speed trains, it won’t pay for construction.
Some of that would fall to federal and local government, and local officials are leading the effort.
The pitch will go something like this: Let’s leverage the private investment with maybe a 20 percent match from the feds and build something even more special.
The Texas HSR project has been pegged at $10 to $12 billion to build. That number will rise. But 20% of that gets you $2 to $2.4 billion. California HSR has already gotten more than that. But Republicans in Congress were furious even with that amount, and have vowed no more money for HSR anywhere. Republican governors in Wisconsin, Ohio and Florida also had similar federal matches and rejected it. So already the Texas HSR proposal is basing its financing on a wish that federal funds would come through – when all the indications are that no such money will materialize as long as Republicans are in the majority.
In other words, the Texas HSR project suffers from the same problem as the California HSR project: gathering all the money it needs to complete the route. Even that hagiographic column in the Dallas Morning News had to acknowledge, though buried at the end, that federal money will be needed. Just as the XpressWest bullet train project from LA to Vegas needed a federal loan, it’s a sign that the private sector cannot actually finance and fund infrastructure of this scale.
But let’s play along with the Texans and assume the money comes through. Other defenders of the Texas project have argued that Texas has numerous advantages over California – all of which dissolve upon closer inspection.
Tom Jackson at Equipment World points to three factors that he thinks make Texas a better fit than California:
1. Both DFW and Houston have relatively compact downtown business areas. You can walk to a lot of the places you need to go, and both downtowns are well served by taxis. Los Angeles is a massive, metastasized sprawl. You can cab around but it’s going to cost you. San Francisco is less spread out, but because of the hills it’s no fun to walk, even short distances. (Houston sprawls with the best of them, but most of the business traffic goes straight downtown.)
This is just nuts. Both SF and LA are much denser than either Dallas or Houston, with better transit networks and connections – especially once the Metro Rail lines planned for LA are built. Houston is literally the poster child for massive, metastasized sprawl.
2. Interstate 45 in Texas is flat and low density. This would make construction and engineering less complicated and acquisition of land rights much less problematic.
3. Texas isn’t eaten up with environmental zealots. Trust me, as soon as they find an endangered mugwort, the California bullet train will come to a screeching halt while the state conducts 10 years of environmental studies.
This argument was also made in the Dallas Morning News column and by Tobias Buckell, that Texas has lower land costs and less environmental obstacles and so the problems caused by California NIMBYs won’t be an issue in Texas.
But if that were true, the Trans-Texas Corridor would have been built instead of killed. The TTC would have included high speed rails, along with new toll highways, pipelines, fiber, and more. It was planned for stretches of rural Texas and would have been financed mostly by private funds. In other words, it had all the positive attributes of the current Texas HSR project.
And yet it was killed by the Texas government after a massive uprising from residents in the TTC’s path and from those adamantly opposed to what was seen as a governmental power grab. Texas NIMBYs didn’t have the same judicial paths open to them that California NIMBYs have, yet they found other paths and killed the TTC anyway.
The truth of the matter is that while Texas is a great place to build high speed rail, any project there will encounter exactly the same obstacles as California high speed rail:
• Inability of the private sector to fund multibillion dollar infrastructure without government aid
• Ideological opposition among Republicans to any public funding for rail
• NIMBY opposition to whatever route is chosen, no matter what that route is
• Misguided environmentalism prioritizing open space over reducing CO2 emissions
• Lack of urgency, unwillingness to believe that high speed rail is a priority.
Those are the problems that have to be solved for high speed rail to be built anywhere in the United States. I wish Texas all the best and I hope they get HSR built. But until they solve those problems, not imaginary problems with government or with California, their efforts will inevitably stall.