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High-speed rail plan would connect Waco with state's largest cities

(The following story by J.B. Smith appeared on the Tribune-Herald website on March 1, 2009.)

WACO, Texas — Someday you may be able to hop on a sleek elevated train at downtown Waco’s transit center and zoom off to Dallas-Fort Worth International Airport in about half an hour — faster and cheaper than on a plane, and with lots more leg room and no stomach-churning turbulence.

That’s the future circa 2020, as envisioned by advocates of Texas high-speed electric rail, and they’re hoping the new stimulus plan can help put it on the fast track.

The leading plan, called the “Texas T-Bone,” would connect DFW Airport with Waco, Temple, Austin and San Antonio, crossed by a leg from Killeen to Houston. It’s being proposed by the Texas High-Speed Rail and Transportation Corporation, a coalition of cities, counties and private-sector partners including major airlines. Waco isn’t a member of the coalition, but some local officials see great promise in the T-Bone plan for tying Waco together with Texas’ biggest cities.

“It’s an economic development opportunity,” said Chris Evilia, director of the Waco Metropolitan Planning Organization, which plans transportation countywide. “It gives us access to recruiting companies that wouldn’t have considered Waco in the past because of our limited air access. . . . It gives us a redevelopment opportunity downtown.”

As fuel prices and congestion have risen, cities across America are increasingly clamoring to be connected by high-speed rail. It has become a federal priority under the $787 million stimulus plan that President Barack Obama signed into law last month, setting aside $8 billion for high-speed rail projects.

It’s too early to say who will get that money, but some say Texas is behind the curve. While California has created a high-speed rail authority and passed nearly $10 billion in bonds for high-speed connections between San Francisco and Orange County, Texas has no planning or funding efforts under way for high-speed rail.

Temple Mayor Bill Jones, vice chairman of the high-speed rail coalition, said it’s time for the state to show more leadership. But his group isn’t waiting for that to happen. The coalition is hoping to apply for $100 million of the stimulus money for a study for its vision of a privately funded high-speed system.

Coalition officials estimate that a 440-mile system, mostly on elevated track that would allow speeds of more than 200 mph, could cost between $11 billion and $22 billion. The study would shed light on those costs, as well as ridership potential, fares and the exact route.

Jones said funding the train privately could expedite the project, but the coalition still would seek state and local government help in acquiring right of way. The elevated track would have no grade crossings, and livestock and farm equipment would be able to cross under it.

“Texas has got the ability to build a system that can be as good as any in the world,” Jones said. “We’ve got no mountains to bore through, no earthquakes to worry about. It’s a pretty economical thing in the whole scheme of things.”

By some definitions, no true high-speed rail system exists in the United States.

Amtrak’s Acela Express between Boston and Washington, D.C., uses a high-speed train capable of more than 150 mph. But it runs on existing freight rails, which slow it to an average of 62 mph between Boston and New York. A weekday business-class trip from Boston to Washington on Acela costs about $250 one way and takes six hours. A regular Amtrak business-class trip costs about $190 and takes eight hours.

Officials with the high-speed coalition say a Texas train would have to be far cheaper and far faster to be successful, and they look to Europe and Asia for models of success.

Reasons to be skeptical?

Skeptics see insurmountable barriers to a nationwide high-speed network in America: wide distances between American cities, terrorism concerns and an automobile-centered culture.

But Jones said it’s the best option Texas has for the future for dealing with traffic on Interstate 35.

“People are realizing that population growth is real, and we’ve got to do something instead of just build additional lanes of highway,” he said. “We’re not going to be able to expand Interstate 35 any more. High-speed rail will help relieve some of that congestion.”

Chris Lippincott, spokesman for the Texas Department of Transportation, said the agency considers high-speed rail a serious option for relieving I-35 congestion.

“It’s essential that every option be looked at,” he said. “Interstate 35 has turned into Main Street for our state. Forty-five percent of the state’s population lives within 15 miles of I-35.”

He said the state isn’t preparing any proposals for possible funding from the stimulus package but is waiting for the federal government to issue guidelines on what projects it will fund.

The high-speed rail group is approaching the task from a more grass-roots level. The coalition includes representatives of Dallas and Tarrant counties and the Port Authority of Houston and is headed by former Harris County Judge Robert Echols. It has support from a state legislative caucus that includes Sen. Kip Averitt of McLennan County.

The state of Texas attempted high-speed rail in the early 1990s by granting a French company a franchise to build a system on a triangle between Dallas, Houston and San Antonio. The project was canceled in 1994 after problems with financing, opposition from rural landowners along the route and aggressive lobbying by Southwest Airlines, which saw it as competition.

Now Southwest Airlines has declared neutrality on the high-speed rail proposals, while American Airlines and Continental Airlines have joined the high-speed coalition, seeing it in their best interests to get Texans to hub airports without increasing airport congestion.

Getting airlines on board

Evilia, the Waco MPO director, said that if airlines can participate in the project instead of fighting it, high-speed rail could have a chance in Texas.

He said high fuel prices last summer led to speculation that airlines might begin dropping commercial service at smaller airports and focus on trips of 500 miles or more. In Waco, Evilia said, high-speed rail could get passengers to hub airports more quickly and at a lower cost than the current options: Continental Connection to Houston or American Eagle to Dallas.

That could spell the end of commercial service at Waco Regional Airport, unless the airport refocused on more distant cities, Evilia said.

“Is that a bad thing?” he said. “That’s what we’re trying to decide. It might be one reason we haven’t jumped on board this plan. But high-speed rail might be more than a replacement for airline service. It may be an enhancement.”

Waco Mayor Virginia DuPuy said she sees great potential in high-speed rail, and she believes the T-Bone route is the wisest option. However, she said she would want to see a business plan for the project before committing the city to membership in the coalition at $25,000 a year.

She said the city might also consider supporting other passenger rail proposals, such as upgrading Amtrak services through the area.

Monday, March 2, 2009

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