bullet-train

High Speed Rail in Texas – Boon or Boondoggle?

Can I just start by saying that I love the idea of 90 minutes from Houston to Dallas by rail?  I LOVE LOVE LOVE it.  Well, except for bypassing Buc-ee’s in Madisonville, which is just not done on a trip to Dallas.  Everything else about it sounds so fun and enchanting to me.

But just because I find it a captivating idea, that doesn’t mean that I’m ready to support it without looking further into it.  That’s how I ended up at Texas State Representative Mike Schofield’s High Speed Rail (HSR) Forum the other day.  I didn’t think it would be recorded, so I rearranged schedules (we’re a one-car family right now), packed up the camera and tripod (and power cable and extension cord and notebook and so on) and headed up to Cypress to hear both sides make their cases.

Before I delve into that, I need to get something off my chest. I never wanted to become a relative subject-matter expert in government at any level.  I never wanted to learn the things I did about Obamacare, or the Rain Tax, or the Red Light Cameras, or light rail, or municipal bonds, or high speed rail, or gazillion dollar high school football stadiums.  But if there’s anything I learned in my eighteen-plus years of political activism, it’s that there is always some faction trying to game the system, some crony in the background with his hand out, some politician trying to make a name or career move for himself.  It’s the main reason I’ve been on a mission to make government as small as possible.

I don’t want to be financing my own fleecing, or paying for the privilege to have my pocket picked.

Now that I’ve got that out of the way, I’ll present both cases as I understood them (with the video of each so you can draw your own conclusions), and then I’ll explain where I come down on the issue.

 

TEXAS CENTRAL PARTNERS (TCP) – The Case For High Speed Rail

Texas is growing, TCP says.  The Panama Canal expansion, a growing Mexican economy, and new refineries needed due to fracking will all contribute to more vehicles on the road.  This growth, and the accompanying traffic, means that high speed rail is needed; we have ‘an extreme demand for more capacity on the roadways’ according to TCP, and we can ignore the problem, or proactively plan for it.

Thus, TCP proposes to build a HSR line from Houston to Dallas, with one stop in between in the Brazos Valley, in the north part of Grimes county.  The TCP numbers and claims:

  • Will run up to 400 people per trip on electric trains traveling up to 200 mph
  • Will run trains every 30 minutes at peak times
  • Will sound ‘about like a hair dryer’
  • Will be elevated, built with viaducts to prevent at-grade crossings with roadways or other trains
  • Will employ 10,000 people to construct
  • Will employ 1,000 people to run
  • Will have a positive $36 billion economic impact over 25 years in Texas
  • Will generate $2.5 billion in tax revenue
  • Will be built and run with no government money

In their own words:

TEXANS AGAINST HIGH SPEED RAIL (TAHSR) – The Case Against HSR

TAHSR agrees that Texas has transportation challenges ahead, but they find several problems with TCP’s plan.  Their two main criticisms center on 1) financial feasibility and 2) property rights of people along the line, and of all Texans should a precedent be set here.

TAHSR claims TCP has overestimated its revenue and ridership projections, and underestimated its costs to build the line.  Both errors, intentional or accidental, mean the project cannot turn a profit.  And while other HSR projects around the world have been constructed with built-in demand by replacing other passenger rail lines, TAHSR notes that isn’t the case here.  TCP would have to convince people who fly or drive the route to take the train.  They also claim TCP hasn’t yet raised even 1% of the cost to build the train, and there is currently no financing in place.  With the Texas transportation budget expected to double over the next ten years to handle infrastructure demands, they also claim this line isn’t needed.

TAHSR also has serious concerns about the potential use of eminent domain to obtain property to construct the line.  TAHSR alleges that the TCP doesn’t actually have eminent domain authority; TCP tries to reject that assertion by citing that they are ‘operating a railroad’.  (One with no trains or stations or tracks, at present.) Thus, TCP is sending threatening letters to property owners, claiming to have eminent domain powers and demanding access to various properties.  (One such letter and survey form can be seen below)

received_10207205831213972received_10207205847174371

Eight of the ten counties through which the rail would run have seen serious opposition to the proposed line, precisely because of property rights concerns.  These counties wouldn’t see direct economic benefit from the line, but would have to deal with problems it would bring and accommodations it would require by traversing their counties.

TAHSR’s case, in their own words, in two parts:


You can see the entire presentation in this playlist, including the audience questions about financing, safety, eminent domain, security, traffic and more.

 

MY REACTION

As I stated above, I love the idea of high speed rail.  But I also know that so much of what happens in ‘big idea’ projects can be traced back to some guy trying to figure out a way to make a lot of money using the power of government.

Look, I’m all for profit!  In fact, when TAHSR was making their case, they kept spitting the word ‘profit’ out like it was a bad thing, and it pissed me off.  And their financial estimates were based on unrealistically incomplete inputs, not even taking into account the secondary income activities from vending and other supporting businesses.  I wholeheartedly endorse profit-seeking, because I believe in free markets and letting those markets decide what they will support and what they won’t.

What I don’t endorse is forcing me, and everyone else, to underwrite private projects.

That is what TCP claims isn’t going to happen; the investors are taking the risk, they assert, so the taxpayers aren’t on the hook.  That makes this, as they call it, a ‘Tea-Party Train’.

(You do not know how hard I had to hold back from interrupting the presentation at the use of that phrase.)

While that may be the way it appears, the skeptic in me can’t imagine a scenario in which this project, once built, won’t get the subsidy treatment because it will become Too Big To Fail.  What would happen should the project fail?  Merely shrugging and claiming investors would be taking all the risk isn’t good enough for me.  I need assurances.

TAHSR claims the legislation they brought to the last session was to ensure the risk-takers would ONLY be the partners at TCP, not the taxpayers.  TCP claims the legislation offered was designed to kill the project, not simply make sure taxpayers were protected.  And this is my entire frustration with debates over big issues like this.  I have no idea what the truth is. I’ve tried reading legislation, but inevitably I need someone who speaks legislese to translate it for me.

And I don’t know what legislation was offered two years ago.  Neither do you, unless you have a vested interest in this project, or in its demise.  Why would you?  What would posses you to know anything at all about this unless you were a stakeholder?

 

I DON’T WANT TO BE AN EXPERT IN TEXAS HIGH SPEED RAIL.

And yet, here I am, poring over the cases each side has made and combing through their websites.  I wish I didn’t have to, but someone does, someone without a stake in the project or property at risk.  I spent lots of time arguing over the bad, bad precedent that the Kelo decision set.  I don’t want to see Texas speculators try to craft arguments that ‘public good’ can be a shopping center or a high rise, but I can see how this can happen.

Cities and municipalities could get strapped for cash as their economies change and their borrowing becomes unsustainable.  In order to meet their debt payments, it’s easy to envision cities condemning private property in favor of new development with higher tax revenue potential.

(I actually think this was one of the reasons for the huge real-estate bailouts – property tax revenues don’t get collected on foreclosed properties.)

 

WHAT TO DO IF YOU REALLY, REALLY, REALLY WANT THIS TRAIN

If you’re excited about the idea of a HSR line between Houston and Dallas, and you’re tired of the buzzkills like me trying to sabotage it, then get serious.  Stop selling the train as a mobility solution that addresses congestion, and then in the next breath say that ‘easing congestion is not what the project is designed to do.’  That’s dishonest, and it happened in the forum, you can see that in the videos.

Study the case that TAHSR is making, and really understand their objections.  Then systematically work to overcome them – not with argument, but with changes in the proposals that protect taxpayers and landowners.  Help draft legislation that prohibits public funding.  Ever.  Or bailouts.  And work on more alternate routes to give the project the best chance of obtaining the property needed to run the line.  Address these concerns publicly, and also make sure TCP isn’t lobbying behind the scenes to undo your good work.

 

WHAT TO DO IF YOU REALLY, REALLY, REALLY DON’T WANT THIS TRAIN

If you’re worried about this or other HSR proposals, educate yourself.  Go to forums, watch the one I recorded, talk to your legislators, find out who the principals are, and study the way the rail advocates make their case.  Then dismantle it, piece by piece, and do it publicly and in a way that’s easy to understand.  TAHSR is a small advocacy group that can’t afford the high dollar lobbyists and spokespeople, so their presentation is going to be less polished, and will probably be packed with information that isn’t as easy to understand as ‘Wheeee! New train!  Shiny!’  If you can help them simplify their presentation or make it more effective (the video I saw on their site is particularly useless) get in touch with them.  If you’re gifted in a way that they need, volunteer some time.  If they put out compelling information that’s sourced well, share that.

For instance, TAHSR claims there are no HSR projects in the world that operate without subsidies.  That should be documented in a blog post, crafted into a press release, and turned into shareable content – not just for our fight here, but for every future community that will face this challenge.  There are a lot of people with a lot of money to spend on selling the public on projects like these, including the builders and developers who stand to make a nice sum regardless of whether the project is viable.  The project will be viable to THEM, because they won’t be there to deal with the consequences if it fails.  They’ll make a killing and move on, so they’re often more than happy to front-load projects with a little seed money for lobbying and promotion and marketing.

 

IN CONCLUSION

I don’t want to know the details of the train, but again, here we are.  And I don’t want to have to fight my government and business leaders and ‘big idea’ guys all the damned time to keep them from forcing us to subsidize their vanity projects and monuments to public spending.  But we’re outnumbered.  Unless more people become skeptical of big government and cronyism, we’ll continue to see these sorts of projects pop up, and we’ll always be outspent and outgunned and outlobbied.  The only hope is to start learning how to make good cases that are supported with good evidence and good logic, and take those cases directly to the people who vote.

There were around 150 people who attended the forum the other night.  I know plenty more who just couldn’t be there.  Scattered and dispersed and unfamiliar with each other, there is little each of them can do.  But if they all shared what they took away (or better yet, shared what *I* took away 😉 ) and organized a good way to share information and ideas using the hashtag #HSRinTX, there might be a chance.

Let’s do it.