A 90-minute ride from Houston to Dallas sounds nice, after all it’s literally half the time it takes Amtrak’s Acela Express to get from New York to D.C. Who doesn’t want to sip an adult beverage and watch the Texas countryside whiz by at around 200 mph?
For the last few years, Texas Central, a private company, has worked to sell everyone from Houston oil tycoons to Freestone County sod busters on the idea of a high-speed rail line between the Bayou City and that other place.
The only problem is, the whole thing is a fantasy. There is absolutely no way that this much-hyped train line will ever pull out of Clutch City Station. To understand why a high-speed rail line between Houston and Dallas is a pipe dream requires understanding a few things about how rural Texans view their land, how urban Texans view rural residents, and how transportation is developed.
Let’s take the last issue first and the first issue last. People who aren’t familiar with how transportation in the U.S. gets done have been quick to jump on various headlines from around Dec. 18, 2017 — all of which proclaimed, to some degree of hyperbole or another, that the proposed bullet train “cleared a major regulatory hurdle.”
Those headlines were true, if by “major regulatory hurdle” the writers meant “most basic requirement to begin embarking on the first step of the planning phase.” On or around Dec. 18, the U.S. government approved two things relating to the rail line: a Draft Environmental Impact Statement and a preliminary decision about an alignment.
A DEIS is a non-binding document that simply states Texas Central’s engineers looked at some of the land they are maybe, possibly, considering building on and didn’t find any areas that were super-polluted.
The DEIS also tells specific governmental agencies that Texas Central doesn’t think construction of the rail line is likely to create a superfund site. At least, that’s what engineers say a DEIS does — no one actually reads one unless they are being sued.
Along with approving a pretty meaningless document, the feds also signed off on a proposed alignment, which some people interpreted as a clear sign that this bullet train is on track. Counterintuitively, that is not the case.
Proposed alignments are just that — proposed. By giving the green light to a proposed alignment, the U.S. government simply told Texas Central that it’s OK to begin drawing up plans around the idea that the train might, one day, follow one hypothetical line on a map instead of another.
Public works projects can, and will, change until the day construction equipment is onsite — sometimes that isn’t even a guarantee. For a good example of how utterly, utterly meaningless a DEIS and approved alignment are, see Houston’s Westpark/Richmond light rail line. Oh that’s right, you can’t.
About 15-years-ago Houston’s Metro Transit Authority, Metro for short, was considering expanding light rail in the city. The Metro board pitched, and the voters approved, a West Side light rail line that was originally proposed to run along Westpark.
The idea for the rail line was pretty solid: Send out a train to alleviate some of the traffic on the almost permanently clogged Southwest Freeway. Over a relatively short period of time, just a few years really, the plan for the West Side rail line went through some major revisions.
First, Metro threw out the Westpark alignment, a route which was approved by Harris County voters, in favor of running the train down Richmond, so the train would link up with the Main Street line.
After the owners of the Galleria, Houston’s priciest shopping mall, pointed out that the two or three years it would take to build a train along Richmond would inconvenience shoppers — and deprive the city of precious sales tax revenue — Metro decided to alter the proposed route a third time and send the train down Westpark to Kirby to Richmond.
That pissed off residents of Afton Oaks, a pricey neighborhood along a stretch of Richmond between Weslayan and 610. In classic NIMBY fashion, Houston’s moneyed elite pressured City Hall and lobbied their congressman to kill the West Side rail line. While Metro was trying to figure out where they wanted to put the proposed train, the agency’s board commissioned, and released, at least one DEIS for the route.
The release of the document, which essentially analyzed a few miles of road for underground petroleum storage tanks and polluted waterways, was treated like the finding of a lost gospel. Press conferences were called and protests were organized; in the end none of it really mattered because the train never got built.
The funny thing is, whether the West Side light rail line got built or not is almost beside the point: The public transit lobby won the fight because they got people talking and thinking about trains.
Transit groups took the momentum that had grown around Houston’s West Side light rail plan to Austin, where they pushed then-Gov. Rick Perry and TxDOT to consider turning a few of Texas’ interstates in to multi-modal corridors, or MMCs for short. MMCs are basically mixed-use roads.
They’re enormous freeways — 20 or 30 lanes in all — with freight and passenger rail and oil and natural gas pipelines running through the middle. The pipelines and railways are buttressed by designated tractor trailer lanes on either side, which have civilian travel lanes outside of them.
MMCs are so large that some engineers and transit planners estimate that a completed one could be up to a mile wide. Despite the absurd scale of these mega-highways, around 2005 TxDOT decided to propose converting huge swaths of I-35 into an MMC.
To understand why turning I-35 into something that could easily be seen from space might be a problem it’s helpful to know a little bit about that particular highway. Interstate 35 is basically the spine of Texas, the road runs almost exactly north-south from Laredo through San Antonio, Austin, Dallas-Fort Worth to the Red River and on into Oklahoma.
Over 50 percent of the state’s population lives within an hour of the freeway, and enough freight travels along I-35 that Central Texas chamber of commerce types have taken to calling it “the NAFTA Highway,” a sobriquet that doesn’t always sit well with the guns-and-God types down at the local Waffle House.
Obviously any changes to I-35 were going to be controversial from the get-go, let alone a proposal to make the highway as wide as two aircraft carriers are long. TxDOT’s plan would have turned I-35 into the first Trans Texas Corridor, a massive toll road built and managed by Cintra — a Spanish infrastructure company.
The idea was barely off the drawing board before rural Texans from the Rio Grande to the Red River grabbed their metaphorical pitchforks and torches. Accusations and allegations were as heavy in the Central Texas air as Cedar pollen in November.
Some people thought turning over an interstate to a foreign company was an assault on U.S. sovereignty, others assumed that Gov. Perry must have gotten a kickback — but almost every small town Texan agreed that the Trans Texas Corridor was just a gussied up land grab, albeit one on an unprecedented scale.
For some city slickers, the proposed redistribution of farm land was a non-issue. A few of the “cosmopolitan elites,” the type who say anyone born in a town without an opera and a ballet should start saving baby-sitting money for a bus ticket, cited the old saw about the needs of the many outweighing the needs of the few.
The argument that came pouring out of the mouths of the more unapologetic urbanites, particularly after they were halfway through their third bottle of claret, was that Texas’ economy depends on the Big Cities — Houston, Dallas, San Antonio, etc. — and that the Wise Old Men in Austin need to do whatever is necessary to make damn sure the money (read: oil) keeps flowing.
A few of the more diplomatic members of these downtown debating societies would wind up arguing that rural Texas’ biggest export isn’t beef, cotton or grain; it’s bright young minds.
Now, there’s some truth to the statement that a handful of counties are responsible for a large part of the state’s GDP. Although to be fair, there’s also some truth to the statement that without large stretches of farm land to support them cities will devolve into apocalyptic shit shows pretty fast.
However, as the Trans-Texas Corridor’s proposal process, which included touring “listening” panels, dragged on the discussion stopped being about the infrastructure needs of urban and rural areas; hell, the discussion even stopped being about freeways and railroads.
Somewhere around the summer of 2005, crowds that showed up to meetings that were ostensibly about road planning stopped discussing land use and rights-of-way and started talking about more esoteric things, like the quality of life and their own existential fears.
Small stake farmers and weekend Walmart workers started telling state reps about conspiracy theories involving Chinese imports in Mexican trucks, the creation of something called the North American Union, and a new currency called the “Amero.”
For the people who called city zip codes home, the rantings about easy pass lanes at the border and uninspected, foreign trucks blowing through one stop-light towns was enough to dismiss any concerns about commute disruptions, flooding risks or years of construction. It became an illustration of the classic communication problem of the loudest voices controlling the debate; the only problem was that the loudest voices happened to be parroting baseless rumors and “facts” that came from chain e-mails.
For some small town Texans, a few of whom haven’t trusted government since Texas ratified the Thirteenth Amendment, unverified statements about a possible shadowy plot to build a super highway through the hill country was right in line with their intrinsic paranoia.
A lot of the folks who live out in the thicket, back in the holler or down by the river don’t want the government knowing nothing about them — they don’t want the census man counting them, they don’t want the school teachers teaching them, and they certainly don’t want any surveyor coming on their land.
These charming examples of local color may not have much — they may live off squirrel stew and mustang wine — but they do have their land, and that land has probably been in the family for generations. In Deep East Texas it’s common for someone to sell a piece of timber land to pay off a debt and the rest of the family spend years trying to buy the parcel back.
It’s not an understatement to say that in rural Texas the three things people really give a damn about are land, water and guns — and they see any project, no matter how well intentioned, that might take any of those three away as an invasion. So the proposed bullet train from Houston to Dallas is almost guaranteed to fail.
Not only is it going run headlong into some skeptical local governments, at least half-a-dozen counties have passed resolutions opposing it. It’s going up against a part of the state that is culturally opposed to the very idea of it.
The developers and investors over at Texas Central have made some pretty big promises: They’ve said that they don’t intend to take tax dollars, that they won’t seek eminent domain authority, and that the project won’t hurt local ag production because the train will be elevated. All those statements clearly fall in the “and you’ve got a bridge to sell me too” category.
Texas Central will most likely have to take tax dollars at some point, primarily because the cost of building a train line is so astronomical that governments have to step in to defray the costs. Tax dollars will also be needed to cover the cost of maintaining the line because there isn’t enough ridership for a Houston to Dallas train. If there was, Amtrak would be operating one right now.
The people behind the Houston to Dallas bullet train also believe that somehow, someway it will create economic development.
Sure there will be some short-term construction jobs created — and the people in those construction jobs will spend some money in local towns while the train is being constructed — but there won’t be a huge long term economic benefit to towns like Anderson or Teague. The main reason why a Houston to Dallas bullet train won’t be a massive economic boon to rural Texas is self-evident: It’s a train, and people don’t get off trains.
Passengers on a train don’t need to pull over to stretch their legs, they don’t need a pit stop to use the bathroom, and they don’t need to look for the next exit to get a bite to eat. Since intercity rail lines don’t make frequent stops, everyone’s needs are pretty much taken care of — that’s why Amtrak has dining cars.
Also, considering the proposed speed of the train, more than 180 mph, and the fact that the developers are planning on exactly one stop between Houston and Dallas, it’s highly unlikely that the Brazos River Valley can expect this proposed rail line to jump start the tourism industry. After all, it’s a little hard to spot a quaint B&B when the train is two stories up and traveling around the same speed as a Daytona 500 driver.
All that being said, I could be wrong — but I’m willing to bet someone else’s money that I’m not.