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May 112011
 

By Barbara Kessler
Green Right Now

Wisconsin, Ohio and Florida’s losses became gains for 24 states when the U.S. Department of Transportation announced $2 billion in awards for a variety of rail projects earlier this week.

The re-shuffling of federal dollars — necessary because the conservative Republican governors of Wisconsin, Ohio and Florida returned federal rail grants –  will mostly benefit high speed rail projects in the Midwest, the Northeast and California, which is developing a Sacramento-to-LA high speed rail system.

But Texas, which has so far largely been on the sidelines in the rush to assemble a national train network, also was beneficiary of the new awards. The Lone Star state got $15 million for preliminary engineering for a high-speed rail line that would link Dallas and Houston.

The Heartland Flyer, evidence that Texans and Oklahomans ride trains when they run daily schedules.

This relatively modest grant, for the preliminary engineering work to connect two of the nation’s largest cities, might seem like an obvious inclusion for the growing  list of  passenger rail projects that could ultimately reunite America, and create tens of thousands of construction and operational jobs.

There were barriers, however, to hopping on the  fast track.

The first: Pure politics. Texas’ Governor Rick Perry, who has railed (no pun) about Washington politicians and Big Government delivers Tea Party rhetoric about big budgets and government overreach that echoes that of his co-patriots in Wisconsin and Ohio and Florida who thumbed their noses at high speed rail subsidies. Those governors made a big show of turning back the “Washington” money for high speed rail. They certainly didn’t win many friends among the infrastructure-minded Obama Administration.

And Perry, whose administration has sued the Obama Administration over the EPA’s pending regulation of greenhouse gases, has already pre-alienated himself from the Washington establishment. But the Texas governor signed off on Texas’ application for rail money, as did both transportation committees in the Texas legislature.

Texas also has had to scramble to get in the high speed rail game because it had no comprehensive plan for the state until 2009 when Obama and train-riding champion Vice President Joe Biden announced that they were funding high-speed rail through the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act.

Texas’ transportation officials have been working “feverishly” since that time to get a plan in place, said Bill Glavin, director of the Texas DOT’s rail department. That division produced a holistic plan in 2010 detailing several options for Texas to improve existing passenger train service and create new routes.

The void before 2009-2010 was not the DOT’s fault. Many inside and outside of state government had envisioned a need for high-speed rail more than 20 years. But that vision had been dashed by competing business interests, dampening calls for passenger rail in the Lone Star state. (Though advocacy groups such as the Texas High Speed Rail And Transportation Corporation have helped keep the vision alive, if not high on the political agenda. In addition, Texas had politicians who pushed for passenger service, including Republican Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison, who helped improve existing Amtrak service that cuts through the middle of the state.)

In the late 1980s, a group of Texans had formed a plan to connect Dallas, Houston and Austin/San Antonio with passenger rail. The proposal for “the Triangle” train made good sense to those who thought the state’s booming population justified multi-modal opportunities. They saw the rail service as a plus for business and a needed alternative to car travel, which was causing pollution issues in urban areas.

But Southwest Airlines, then confined to hopper flights within Texas and adjoining states by the “Wright Amendment,” which had been crafted to protect D/FW Airport and resident carrier American Airlines from competition from Southwest, opposed passenger high-speed rail service for the state.

This tangled web of ulterior motives, however, could be unraveling, says Glavin.

Today, he notes, Southwest can flight across the nation, and is due to fly unconstrained by 2014 as the Wright Amendment is phased out.

High Speed Rail Corridors (proposed).

Now the challenge is for Texas to decide which passenger train routes to pursue. The money awarded this week will be pegged to a Dallas/Fort Worth to Houston corridor that would parallel I-45, and while it’s never easy to route a train, it could be a relatively easier to route this one, because much of the right-of-way is already there, Glavin said.

High speed rail still makes sense, possibly more than ever, for Texas, because it could connect  three of the nation’s top and still-growing 10 metro areas – Houston, Dallas and San Antonio (along with nearby Austin), he said. The Texas DOT train plan also notes that connecting all these cities also could pull in major universities, like UT-Austin, Texas A&M and Baylor University, along with several middle-sized cities.

The high-speed rail proposed to link D/FW and Houston would move passengers at up to 150 miles per hour and could be completed by 2020, if not earlier, according to the Texas rail plan.

It would help alleviate highway congestion by offering commuters, business travelers and tourists alternative transportation that would be cost-competitive with air travel and faster than auto travel, according to the plan.

“We’ve got critical mass, says Glavin. “And the fact is, it is continued to grow.”

While some Texans have had a less than great experience with Amtrak, because of its delays and sporadic schedules in the state, there’s also evidence that passengers are ready and willing to ride trains when offered a dependable daily schedule, he said.

Glavin pointed to the success of the “Heartland Flyer” that connects Fort Worth and Oklahoma City on a daily basis. The Texas 2010 passenger train plan also notes that Amtrak’s Eagle service from San Antonio to Chicago (through Austin and Dallas) has seen a doubling of boardings and alightings – more than 200,000 compared with 100,000 in 1998 — since it began offering daily service instead of every third day.

The high-speed rail system also would be more eco-friendly than auto travel, helping reduce urban air pollution by emitting about one-third of the emissions of cars, according to the federal DOT.

The Texas DOT’s plan calls for electric trains, which are considerably less polluting than diesel-run engines, though it doesn’t project how that electricity would be generated.

The infrastructure also has a smaller footprint than highway construction, Glavin noted.

“It’s a good technology for moving lots of people efficiently and effectively if it’s done right.”

  • Previously, Texas received federal grants for “Signal Timing” south of Fort Worth to reduce travel times ($3.5 million in the Recovery Act in 2009) and for a service plan and environmental impact work on the Oklahoma City to Dallas/Fort Worth corridor ($7 million in FY 2010).

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