Texas bullet train idea making a comeback

If successful, there will be a faster way to get from Dallas to Houston.

Texas Supertrain in 1989.

AUSTIN, TX (Texas Tribune) - In 1989, former Lt. Gov. Ben Barnes joined a group of investors hoping to develop a bullet train system in Texas. The company, Texas TGV, planned to build a 200 mph line between Dallas and Houston and then expand to Austin and San Antonio. After four years and more than $70 million in investments, the project collapsed. 

More than two decades later, Texas Central Railway is trying to revive a part of that earlier project, a privately financed bullet train connecting Dallas and Houston. As the company prepares to do a federally required environmental impact study and hold public meetings along the planned route, its leaders say they expect to avoid the pitfalls of the earlier project, namely inadequate financing and intense opposition from Southwest Airlines. 

Many rail advocates have put the blame for the demise of the earlier “Supertrain” project on Southwest Airlines, which conducted an aggressive lobbying campaign. Yet the story of the project’s failure is more complicated. 

Then, as now, supporters are heralding the possibility of travel between Dallas and Houston in less than 90 minutes. The current plan would use technology from the Central Japan Railway Company, which handles more than 100 million passengers each year on its bullet trains in Japan. 

Two firms, French-backed Texas TGV and German-backed Texas FasTrac, paid $500,000 each to apply for the state’s first high-speed rail franchise. 

Texas TGV’s proposal was especially ambitious. The company envisioned using technology already in use in France to build out a 600-mile network connecting Dallas, Houston, Austin and San Antonio in less than a decade. Company officials predicted they could draw more than 9 million annual riders by 2014. 

Some 70 percent of the project’s $6 billion price tag via tax-exempt private activity bonds, more than federal law allowed a company to borrow using that type of financing. The venture hinged on Texas TGV changing federal law to ease the restrictions. 

When the High-Speed Rail Authority launched a hearing to decide whether to move forward with one of the two franchise applications, Southwest Airlines was permitted to join the proceedings as an intervener. The company’s attorneys filed hundreds of objections, helping drag out the process for weeks. When a letter from President George H.W. Bush encouraging efforts to bring high-speed rail to Texas was submitted as evidence, Southwest’s attorneys argued it was “hearsay.” When state Sen. John Whitmire, D-Houston, submitted testimony on rail-related legislation that he had passed, the airline called it “incompetent” and asked that it be stricken from the record. 

As Texas Central High-Speed Railway attempts to succeed where Texas TGV failed, company executives have conveyed confidence in their financial backing. While tax-exempt private activity bonds are not in the firm’s current finance model, Eckels said he could not rule them out as an option. But, he did not foresee the need to change any federal or state laws in order to finance the project. 

This article originally appeared in The Texas Tribune at http://www.texastribune.org/2014/03/07/firm-planning-texas-bullet-train-avoiding-past-pit/.

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