"Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this train"? (Photo by Flickr user, kaffeeeinstein)

Transportation

Has the Texas Central Bullet Train Gone Off the Rails?

Some skeptics fear ridership projections are too bullish and tax payers may be left bailing out the project. But are they right to worry?

It’s been a busy year for the much-anticipated Texas bullet train. The project emerged as a contentious issue in the state legislative session leading to legislation that intends to protect tax payers from any potential cost of the project. Houston officially signed on in support of the high-speed rail line, and contractors have been hired to design and build the rail link.

The project, however, is still drawing skepticism. Travis Korson, a senior fellow with Frontiers of Freedom, a conservative Washington think tank, believes the numbers don’t pencil out Texas’ bullet train. In a column for the The Hill , he argues that a growing budget and inflated ridership projects suggest the privately funded rail project may not be profitable: 

Investors are probably starting to feel the same way and the few that have provided the 1 percent of capital raised to date may soon be looking to cut ties. Delays surrounding the environmental impact study have already put the project years behind schedule. Proposed construction costs have ballooned from $10 billion to $16 billion and the project is yet to break ground.

Overly optimistic ridership estimates also call into question the long-term viability of the project, should it ever secure the necessary funding to complete construction. Estimates from Texas Central Partner predict a ridership of 5 million annually by 2025 (up from earlier estimates of 4 million annual riders by 2035) and a whopping 10 million riders by 2050.

Where do those numbers come from? Texas Central Partners, the firm behind the rail project, estimates that about 14 million people travel between Houston and Dallas, and they hope  to capture about 36 percent of that traffic by 2025. Korson finds this overly optimistic and makes a comparison to Amtrak’s high-ish speed Acela line, which travels between Washington D.C. and Boston and accounts for about 2 percent of all passenger traffic in the high-density northeast corridor. Can the bullet train capture more ridership share than Amtrak enjoys in the Northeast? Korson doesn’t believe so, and he argues that the rail project’s finances will eventually unravel, if it ever gets built in the first place.

But is he right? According to a study conducted by the high-speed rail company, Texans are enthusiastic about the possibility of another option for commuting between Dallas and Houston besides air and auto, and 71 percent of frequent travelers — the ones who know how inconvenience the short flight or the grueling drive can be — say they would “probably or definitely” use the bullet train. If the bullet train can convert a portion of those eager-future riders into actual passengers, it should be okay.

However, the larger challenge for the rail project in terms of appealing to riders is solving the question of what happens to riders once they arrive in their destination city. Dallas answers that question by locating the terminal near downtown where riders can connect to public transit. But what if a Houston businesswoman has a meeting with Toyota? Will taking the bullet train only to be forced with wrestling with a commute up to Plano undo the convenience of the high-speed rail link? And what about Houston? The sprawling city plans to place its high-speed rail terminal on the outskirts of the city on the city’s ring road. Will taking the high-speed rail, then, necessitate renting a car once riders reach their destination?

These questions place the planning of the high-speed rail project within a broader process of rethinking land use and transportation systems. The success of the high-speed rail line is contingent on the ability of Dallas and Houston to address other transportation shortcomings. If that kind of planning and investment in complementary infrastructure doesn’t happen, then Korson’s doom-and-gloom prediction that ridership numbers won’t flesh out may have some merit.

But in his fear over the bullet train turning into a boondoggle and leaving tax payers on the hook for bailing it out, Korson misses this the broader question of urban sustainability. The question shouldn’t be whether or not high-speed rail will work in in the state. Rather, the question should be what can Texas do to make sure it works. High-speed rail, improved public transit, and a better approach to land-use are the kinds of projects Texas must get right in order for the state to remain competitive in the future.

 

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