Cars and planes. That’s the way most Texans travel today. But with gasoline and ticket prices putting pressure on our pocketbooks, is it at long last time to reconsider that other mode of transportation? Is it time to renew our historic romance and sometime love affair with trains? Dallas lawyer David Laney thinks so, and as the Chairman of Amtrak, and former head of the Texas Department of Transportation, he knows whereof he speaks. Bullet trains speeding nonstop between major Texas cities would be both cost-effective and fast, he says, and it is all within our grasp if the government will keep those subsidies coming and if Texans can leave their cars in the garage and planes on the tarmac.
ROWLETT: Amtrak has been on the ropes for quite a while. What is its status now?
LANEY: We have a brighter future than at anytime in recent history. We have the understanding of the leadership of both houses of Congress of the important role intercity passenger rail can play. And it might, for the first time, give us the legislative footing that we have never had before.
TRACK STAR: "Amtrak has a brighter future than at anytime in recent history."
LANEY: A federal match program that positions us comparably with highways, aviation, and transit. And that is usually an 80/20 split where the federal government picks up 80 percent of the funding of infrastructure needs, and the states involved pick up 20 percent. It would give us multi-year predictable funding and it would allow us to plan in a way that Amtrak has never been able to plan.
ROWLETT: But why should the government bankroll a service that isn’t profitable?
LANEY: It doesn’t make any money, but neither do highways or aviation, at least as far as federal funding goes. The role of intercity passenger rail is becoming increasingly important. Our lead example of that is our northeast corridor operation, the most concentrated area of population. We run high-speed operations from Washington to Boston at 120 to 150 miles an hour, and it is the preferred mode of travel. The highway system in concentrated population areas of the country is becoming increasingly congested. Now, in the wake the hurricanes, the cost of driving is rising. Amtrak is an efficient, economic alternative to conventional modes of transportation.
ROWLETT: But what about Texas and other parts of the country where Amtrak is not getting that kind of ridership?
LANEY: Well, you put your finger right on it. But I think the northeast corridor is a harbinger of what we’ll see in other highly concentrated population areas. We see it already in California. Our operations in northern and southern California are highly successful. And California has put money into their system in the last decade, independent of any federal match. The same thing in the northwest in the state of Washington where they’ve put in money. And we see the same kind of concentration and the same need in the Chicago area.
ROWLETT: So, what do you see in Texas?
LANEY: The fastest growing area in the United States is Texas. We are going to see that kind of population concentration on the eastern side of I-35 in the next 10, 15 to 20 years. I think we are at about 20 million now and the numbers that I have seen push us by 2020 to 30 to 37 million, depending on the numbers you look at, and 50 percent of that growth is going to be in the metropolitan areas: Dallas, Fort Worth, Austin, Houston, and San Antonio, and the border areas. And there is no way that I-35 or I-10 can keep up with that kind of concentration and growth. So there will be an opportunity for rail between those cities, the kind of rail service city-to-city that we have seen in the northeast.
ROWLETT: What about the possibility of bullet trains between those Texas cities? Do you really think it will happen?
LANEY: Yes, but in incremental pieces. Right now there is an initiative and growing support for a commuter train to operate between Austin and San Antonio. I think there will be an opportunity, but it is very expensive to set up all the infrastructure it takes, to run those trains between Dallas and Houston and Houston and San Antonio and back to Dallas. But those initiatives are in the works. In the Northeast, we own the tracks and the system and we are on time 95 percent of the time. It’s a different story here where the tracks are owned by freight services and we have to keep our speeds down and we are at the beck and call of the freight trains. It’s hard to stay on time under those conditions.
ROWLETT: So you would have to lay new track in Texas?
LANEY: Absolutely. That’s why I say it is very expensive. There are ways to add capacity without adding entirely new lines. But, again, those are by private freight rail operations and we can’t just saunter in and build sidings to their rails, nor can the federal government contribute to private enterprise like that. So it is a different ball game from the highway system or aviation systems.
ROWLETT: But you see a real future for rail travel in Texas, despite Texans’ love affair with their cars?
LANEY: Yes, with the same kind of funding we have seen for highways, I think we have a real opportunity. But it will happen incrementally and it won’t happen overnight. It will take decades, I believe. And whatever gains we make in Amtrak in the future, it will still be a minor compliment to what goes on in the highway system.
ROWLETT: How much is the federal government contributing to Amtrak now?
LANEY: Well, our operating budget has been declining over the last few years. But with budget and indebtedness that we inherited from past boards, we are asking for a total of a billion-four.
ROWLETT: Will rising fuel costs force people to rethink Amtrak?
LANEY: Well, right after Katrina and Rita, we saw a jump in our ridership numbers. But I think it’s going to settle down a little bit. I don’t think the price of oil will be sustained at the levels we saw after the hurricanes. I think it will fall to more manageable and acceptable levels. But I do think it was jarring enough that there will be some attention to rail travel that wasn’t there before.
ROWLETT: And Amtrak is raising rates, too?
LANEY: We have announced an increase, but we are still a much more economical way to travel.
ROWLETT: On another subject, you have been mentioned as a possible Republican candidate for governor. Will you run?
LANEY: No. I support Gov. Perry.
ROWLETT: But you have said you would like to see a centrist challenge the governor.
LANEY: I’d like to see less polarization in Austin. And everyone is frustrated that we didn’t make more progress on such issues as school finance. But, for the most part, I think they’ve done a good job.
ROWLETT: So, if Governor Perry isn’t a centrist, what do you think he is?
LANEY: Well, a little farther right than center.
ROWLETT: You are three years into your five-year term as Chairman of Amtrak. Will you stay longer, or will you consider politics afterward?
LANEY: I will step down from Amtrak after this term, and I do not plan to run for office. I will continue to practice law in Dallas.
Regular D Magazine contributor Tracy Rowlett is a news anchor and managing editor at CBS Channel 11.