by BRAD ROLLINS
Long presumed a lost cause, efforts to build high-speed rail connecting Texas’ four largest cities are experiencing a revival of sorts and even getting some federal funding to help it along the way.
On Tuesday, rail advocates made a whistle-stop in San Marcos where they tried to enlist the Hays County Commissioners Court in support of the “Texas T-Bone” system that would whisk travelers between Austin, San Antonio, Dallas/Fort Worth and Houston at an average of 200 mph on elevated tracks.
By the time Texas’ population is expected to reach nearly 52 million in 2040, the population in those four metropolitan areas will comprise an even larger share of the state’s total than the 69 percent it does now, said Brazos County Commissioner Kenny Mallard, who co-chairs the Texas High Speed Rail and Transportation Corp. A surging population will mean gridlock on highways in the state, most notably Interstate 35, already one of the nation’s most heavily traveled corridors.
“We know in the future we have to find a better way to move people around in Texas,” Mallard said. Another rail booster, Temple Mayor Bill Jones said, “We cannot grow our interstate highways fast enough for the population that’s coming to Texas.”
Building 490 miles of track between the cities is estimated to cost $25 million to $50 million a mile for a total pricetag of $12 billion to $20 billion, a “pretty good chunk of change” in a cash-strapped state, as Hays County Pct. 3 Commissioner Will Conley put it. But he noted that the cost of adding one lane in each direction to Interstate 35 from Laredo to Oklahoma would cost somewhere in the range of $40 million.
“So you have to put it in perspective,” Conley said. “There are a lot of questions that need to be answered but it’s certainly a valid idea that deserves our interest and potentially even our investment further down the road.”
None of the other commissioners court members said much about the presentation. County Judge Bert Cobb asked, perhaps rhetorically, if building the Texas T-bone would require new right-of-way across the state, alluding to property rights concerns that helped derail high-speed rail in Texas nearly 20 years ago.
Created by the Legislature in the 1980s, the Texas High Speed Rail Authority struck a deal with a French company to build a system, then expected to cost about $7 billion, between the four metropolitan areas. But in a foreshadowing of fiesty rural opposition to the Trans-Texas Corridor this decade, the high-speed rail project was killed in 1992 after private property concerns – and Southwest Airlines – amassed enough political weight in Austin. The airline, which no longer does most of its business in short commuter flights, is neutral this time around, Jones said.
In October, U.S. Rep. Lloyd Doggett announced that the Federal Railroad Administration has approved a $5.6 million grant for Texas to study a high-speed rail between the international border and Oklahoma City, a route that would presumably pass through the San Antonio and Austin areas. But the money came at a price for other rail efforts.
The Texas Department of Transportation originally had applied for $11.2 million to fund the high-speed rail study. When it received only half that amount, it said it would make up part of the difference with $2.8 million which otherwise would have gone to the San Marcos-based Lone Star Rail District, which envisions a commuter line between Georgetown and San Antonio with stops in Kyle and San Marcos.
But Jones said, “We are not a competitor to that line at all. It is complementary. It is absolutely essential that all these systems exist.”
San Marcos Mercury Editor and Publisher Brad Rollins is also editor of the Hays Free Press where this story was originally published. It is reprinted here through a news partnership between the Hays Free Press and the San Marcos Mercury.
CORRECTION: This story should have reported that Kenny Mallard is a Brazos County commissioner, not a Brazoria County commissioner. It has been corrected.