Democratic Party hopes to retake Congress soon have been buoyed by this week’s election. Whether it is in 2018, 2020, or later, whenever they eventually regain control, federal funding for high-speed rail and other infrastructure projects will likely be back on the table. Since the sole criterion for funding such projects in 2009 was whether they had completed an environmental impact statement, numerous states are currently working on or have recently completed such statements.
An example of the Texas Department of Transportation, which just announced that its final environmental impact statement showed that a high-speed rail line from Dallas to San Antonio was “feasible.” A conventional rail line from Oklahoma City to Dallas and a higher-speed line from San Antonio to Monterrey, Mexico were also considered feasible. This is good news for rail buffs, as it means Texas is eligible for federal funding to do more detailed studies.
Before you buy your tickets for a high-speed ride from Dallas to San Antonio, it is worth asking what the state means by “feasible.” According to table 3-4 of the alternatives analysis, the Oklahoma City-Dallas segment would cost $650 million to start up, none of which would ever be recovered from fares. In fact, fares would only cover 27 percent of operating costs. That’s feasible?
The Dallas-San Antonio high-speed rail line would do a little better, with fares covering all of its operating costs. However, it would cost well over $5 billion to build the line, and most of those costs would not be covered by fares.
For some reason, the state decided the best service between San Antonio and Monterrey would be “higher-speed rail,” meaning trains going up to 125 miles per hour (compared with 220 mph for high-speed rail), even though the capital costs would be much higher than conventional rail. Yet the alternatives found that fares on this route would cover no more than 20 percent of operating costs and, of course, would cover none of the billions of dollars needed to start it up.
Given that the state apparently believes that capital costs don’t count when determining “feasibility,” it could have just as well concluded that it would be feasible to run a high-speed trail from College Station to Nachagdoches. Heck, it would be just as feasible to run a magnetically levitated train from Amarillo to Big Bend National Park. How about a hyperloop from Brownsville to El Paso? Maybe suborbital rocket ships from Abilene to San Angelo. Why is the state so short-sighted that it isn’t considering these possibilities?
Apparently, when the state says “feasible,” it means “it is feasible for us to accept more federal subsidies for further studies.” No doubt it will also be feasible to accept federal subsidies for construction. But who is going to pay for the 70 to 80 percent of operating costs that won’t be covered by fares?
Texas Governor Greg Abbott claims to be a fiscal conservative. But why does he let his department of transportation run out of control, accepting millions in federal funds as a ramp up to accept billions in federal funds for projects that make no economic sense? It’s time for fiscal conservatives to inject a sense of reality into these rail discussions before the Democrats start putting together another trillion-dollar spending bill.