Traffic Jams And High Speed Rail

Alan Nelson

Traffic Jams And High Speed Rail  | texas t-bone, Texas triangle, Southwest Airlines, American Airlines, Continental Airlines, mass transit,

Perhaps we should start with the concept of slow trains.  We don’t have conventional intercity train travel in Texas, yet we want high speed rail.

Texas abandoned its use of trains as mass transit as automobiles proliferated and the highway system developed. 

A recent proposal for high-speed rail in Texas is part of a larger proposed, state-wide super-infrastructure, the Trans-Texas Corridor.  The Texas Department of Transportation (TxDOT) submitted applications this week to the Federal Railroad Administration requesting almost $43 million in federal high-speed rail funds for two Texas projects--one for preliminary engineering and environmental studies and one for safety improvements.

We’ve done studies before, though the last real plans are about 20 years old.  That’s because high speed rail is the type of input many in Texas have tried to avoid.

We’ve been through it before. What’s now called the Texas T-Bone was called The Texas Triangle.  The Texas Triangle was  to be a privately financed high speed rail system connecting Houston, San Antonio and Dallas-Fort Worth.

There was litigation, there was behind the scenes negotiating, and finally, the franchise was award to a consortium of major players under the name of Texas TGV, much to the dismay of a rival technology.

The business was to be based on Southwest Airlines, which used the same triangle to establish its base in the Texas market.   The 1980s were ending. The population of the state hovered around 17 million.

Guess who squashed it?  Many of you remember.  Southwest Airlines, now the nation’s largest domestic air carrier, lobbied to create legal obstacles to keep the project from getting funds.  The project crashed in 1994 when the state withdrew the franchise.

The cost back then was projected to be $5.6 billion.  My CPI calculation is that now would be about $9.5 billion, but I’m no economist.  And the population is about 25 million.  We’re still relying on vehicles and airplanes.

However, forces already are lining up to fight the Texas T-Bone:

1)       Economic activity is moved about like a shell game from small and medium-sized cities to large cities.

2)       High speed rail does not significantly lower air pollution

3)      Energy use is higher than for conventional trains

4)       Cities that are left off the high speed rail route diminish and die like cities that missed the railroad lines in the 1880s.

5)       No public project ever holds to budget but overruns the budget in a time when the government is tightening its belt.

6)      People will not abandon their cars

7)      Airlines are faster

8)      Costs now to build high speed rail in Texas bears no resemblance to the $5.6 billion projected in the late 1980s.   Development estimates now range up to $50 billion.

9)      More farmland will be eaten up by the infrastructure.

And so on.  

One major difference this time is that American Airlines and Continental Airlines joined the Texas High Speed Rail and Transportation Corporation five years ago.  Unlike Southwest Airlines of yesteryear, these airlines see high speed rail as a feeder for the airlines.   

Now, with the advent of ever increasing fuel prices, ever increasing population, ever increasing traffic congestion (drive from Dallas to San Antonio if you need a reminder) and ever increasing technology (the advent of Google computer-driven cars), the time may be nearing for a successful high speed rail bid.

Or perhaps twenty years from now we’ll be talking about the failed Texas T-Bone and thinking how it cheap it would have been to do then.