A high speed rail to-do list

On Friday, the Federal Railroad Administration comes to town with a high speed rail workshop.

Texas is surely one of the top five high speed rail prospects in the county. Houston, Austin, Dallas, Texas and San Antonio have 16 million people between them, all potentially within 2 hours of each other by high speed rail. That’s no as many as California’s system (33 million) but it’s more than Florida (12 million) or the Pacific Northwest (7 million) and it requires maybe a quarter as much track as the midwest system (37 million.) And, unlike Florida, we’re building good local transit systems that can get people from the high speed rail station to their destinations.

But we’re behind all of those places in implementation. That’s what the FRA wants to talk about. President Obama wants to see high speed rail happen in the United States. He’s putting money in his budgets. But without local effort to organize projects, that’s money’s useful. So what do we need to do to get started on high speed rail in Texas?

We need to get Houston connected to the rest of Texas on the federal map. The feds are only going to fund projects in officially designated corridors. So far, Houston isn’t on the same corridor as Dallas, Austin, and San Antonio. But a bill passed in October requires the Secretary of Transportation to study adding Houston to that corridor. With a push from out local congressional delegation, that should be a no-brainer.

We need to get the state government involved. A private entity — the Texas High-Speed Rail Corporation — is studying high speed rail. Private capital and operations could be a key part of high speed rail. But the state government has to be on board for property acquisition, to accept federal funding, and likely to add some funding of its own. TxDOT says it’s putting together plans. But we have yet to see how large a role the state is willing to play.

We need studies. High speed rail will require environmental analysis, cost estimates, and ridership estimates. California spent ten years laying that groundwork. We don’t have any of it.

We need to figure out where the terminals are. Dallas already has a ready-made rail station. We don’t. And we need to get the trains into IAH and DFW as well. Texas, unlike California, is flat. Getting tracks between cities is easy. Getting them into the cities will be the big challenge.

We need to coordinate with commuter rail.
We’re talking about commuter rail in Houston, Dallas-Fort Worth is planning to expand its network, and Georgetown-Austin-San Marcos-San Antonio are doing studies. High speed rail and commuter can share corridors and even tracks. By integrating the two, we can offer better connections, save cost, and minimize impacts. That also opens up more funding sources: federal high speed rail funds and federal transit funds can be combined.

That’s a lengthy to-do list. Texas tried for high speed rail once before; politics killed that attempt. This time, the politics seem better, especially with Continental and American on board. But we still need leadership to bring the pieces together.

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