HomeBudget & Tax NewsWill Texas Repeat California’s Bullet Train Debacle? (Opinion)

Will Texas Repeat California’s Bullet Train Debacle? (Opinion)

Will Texas Repeat California’s Bullet Train Debacle? There is still not a single mile of installed track, and the original total cost estimate ballooned from $33 billion to $128 billion.

By Edward Ring

When it comes to wasting stupefying sums of money, few government-funded projects in American history can rival California’s so-called “High-Speed Rail.” After nearly two decades since California’s voters were conned into approving the project, and after already spending an estimated $11.2 billion, there is still not a single mile of installed track. Proponents originally estimated the total system cost at $33 billion; today, that cost estimate has ballooned to $128 billion.

Everything about California High-Speed Rail is misguided. The money being spent to build it could instead be used to add lanes to every major freeway in the state, upgrade every airport, and rebuild the state’s water supply infrastructure, with billions left over. The system will never even be able to cover its operating costs from fares and will be a permanent economic drain. And even under the most optimistic projections, it will never remove more than a minute fraction of California’s cars from the road.

But California’s bureaucracy soldiers onward, scraping together a billion here, a billion there—just enough to keep the project from dying. Construction unions, who ought to use their clout to demand useful projects instead of make-work, don’t want to rock the boat. Bureaucrats have jobs for life. And environmentalists are relieved to see finite financial resources poured into infrastructure development that won’t actually result in even a hint of that annoying depredation known as genuine economic growth.

Now Texans want to emulate California. Bring on the bullet train, Texas style. Ride from Dallas to Houston in 90 minutes. What could possibly go wrong?

Everything.

Just the threat of the State of Texas forcing thousands of landowners to sell their property along the planned route has taken hundreds of square miles of land off the market. Farms and ranches in the outer suburbs of Dallas and Houston that are in the path of the possible route can’t get development financing. This risks creating a politically contrived shortage of land available for housing in Dallas and Houston—one of the reasons housing is unaffordable in California. One of the virtues of the real estate market in Texas is that private developers can build homes at affordable prices and still make a profit.

Try that in California. Getting formal approval and fighting off the lawsuits will take decades and add 50 percent to the cost to build. You’ll pay bureaucrats far more money than you’ll ever pay the carpenters, plumbers, electricians, framers, roofers, and masons who do the work.

Go ahead, Texas; be like California.

One of the sources of Texan pride, with good reason, is that they get things done without the corruption that masquerades as virtue in California. This would explain why the original proposal for a bullet train connecting Dallas to Houston was to be privately financed. But after this private endeavor burned through about half a billion dollars, Amtrak stepped in as a partner.

One might argue that having Amtrak involved might not be so bad if they set realistic objectives. Amtrak’s Acela route in the Northeast operates trains at speeds up to 150 miles per hour, using upgraded tracks that were already in place, sharing the tracks with commuter and freight trains. With fast trains and strong ridership, the Acela passenger trains make sense. The corridor runs from Washington, DC, to Boston, through the most densely populated region in the country.

Imagine an Acela system in Texas that would connect Dallas to Houston. The Amtrak station in Dallas is located on 400 South Houston Street, in the absolute heart of downtown. The Amtrak station in Houston is located at 902 Washington Avenue, also in the heart of downtown. Upgrading these stations and existing railroad tracks to better connect these two downtowns with trains that can reach speeds of 150 miles per hour along most of the route would consume an order of magnitude less investment. It would not require an entire new track on an entire new right-of-way. And it would yield a better result.

Instead, proponents of the Texas bullet train boondoggle are claiming their system will reduce travel time from Dallas to Houston to 90 minutes. This is profoundly misleading because they are proposing to build the stations for these trains in suburbs disconnected from the downtown areas. These new stations aren’t even planned to be located near the major airports serving these cities. And while proponents boast that the “average speed” of these trains will reach 187 miles per hour, that doesn’t take into account the time required to get from downtown to the remote stations.

Today, the Amtrak service from downtown Dallas to downtown Houston takes nine hours. An interesting analysis would specify exactly what upgrades would be necessary to speed that up. For example, the existing trip available through Amtrak is not an express train. Passengers must endure frequent stops and even have to disembark and board another train to complete the full journey. Just scheduling a nonstop train would cost next to nothing and would probably bring travel time down under four hours.

With track upgrades and some additional sidings to more easily coordinate with freight traffic, the time for the 225-mile route could probably be brought down to around three hours. Since the Texas bullet train proposal claims a 90-minute trip, if you add to that about 30 minutes for each trip from downtown to the shiny new multibillion-dollar bullet train stations at each end, you’re probably looking at nearly comparable downtown to downtown travel times.

Such is the nature of the choice Texans are being asked to make.

Just last month, in May 2024, Senator Ted Cruz wrote Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg, demanding answers about a “highly questionable new high-speed rail line in California.” And yet in that same month, Cruz said that high speed rail in Texas “would create jobs and support the economy.” Senator Cruz, who favors limited government and private sector solutions, adheres to his principles to challenge a prodigious waste of federal funds in California, yet abandons those same principles when the same project with the same potential for waste is proposed in Texas. Where do you stand, Senator Cruz?

Virtually all politicians, regardless of their ideology, will recognize and applaud the fact that pouring government money into infrastructure projects creates jobs. And that’s a better use of government funds than just issuing welfare checks, because the money is paying for productive work that employs skilled labor. So far, so good. But the quality of the project has to factor in somewhere, and being attentive to that crucial distinction is what’s supposed to separate a responsible politician from a corrupt hack.

Even overspending can be forgiven, if the end result permanently generates economic value. Consider Boston’s “Big Dig.” They wasted billions in overspending on that, but when it was done, the drive from downtown Boston to Logan International Airport took 15 minutes instead of an hour and a half. That’s quality.

The Texas bullet train is not another Big Dig. It’s a twin to the bullet train fiasco in California.

The argument for passenger rail isn’t strong. It presupposes high-density concentrations of people and commerce along the rail corridors. Trains are useless without rail under them, whereas cars and trucks are point-to-point conveyances that require nothing but a flat surface. Their versatility makes them far more efficient. It is only with heavy freight that the much better energy efficiency per ton-mile gives rail a decisive advantage over trucks. Rail is appropriate for long-haul bulk cargo. For people, we have cars and planes.

What Texans ought to be able to figure out, even if Californians cannot, is that cars are the future of transportation, not the past. Despite transitional hiccoughs that will pass within a generation, we will have abundant energy and ultra-clean and sustainable vehicles. Moreover, our vehicles will drive themselves, likely at speeds well in excess of even the 85 miles per hour maximum we out-of-staters find as a most welcome sight on Texas freeways. In the near future, we will work, relax, or even sleep as our cars drive us where we want to go. This will deprive rail transportation of yet another of the arguments for its use.

A final absurdity in the case for high-speed rail in Texas is the idea that it will significantly reduce automotive traffic. No. It won’t. An honest assessment of daily through traffic from Dallas to Houston will probably reveal that most of the traffic on I-45 is local. And regardless of that, people driving all the way from city to city will want to have their own cars when they get there. Commercial travel for business is increasingly being relegated to Zoom calls, a trend that will only increase. And just around the corner are passenger drones that will not require runways and airports and will have the range and speed to make a truly downtown Dallas to downtown Houston trip in under 90 minutes.

Texas, if you must have more passenger rail, bring in Acela trains and use existing track. Save your money. Don’t be California.

Originally published by American Greatness. Republished with permission.

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Edward Ring
Edward Ring
Edward Ring is a senior fellow of the Center for American Greatness. He is also the director of water and energy policy for the California Policy Center, which he co-founded in 2013 and served as its first president. Ring is the author of Fixing California: Abundance, Pragmatism, Optimism (2021) and The Abundance Choice: Our Fight for More Water in California (2022).

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