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Editorial: Texas can't sit out high-speed rail forever

(The following editorial appeared on the Dallas Morning News website on January 29, 2010.)

DALLAS — If top Texas leaders had wanted serious high-speed rail money from Washington, they needed to show they were serious about it first.

Pity, but neither appeared to be the case.

The big federal prizes to develop bullet trains went to Florida, California and Illinois last week. Texas got the scraps, and deservedly so.

Of nearly $8 billion in rail grants announced by the Department of Transportation, Texas gets about $11 million. That will smooth Amtrak and TRE service in North Texas, but it will do nothing to revolutionize travel in the most economically robust mega-state in the union – ours.

High-speed rail could be a game-changer for the first states to develop it. Texas should not abandon ambition just because competitors are racing ahead.

Consider what others are doing. Take Florida, which has, like Texas, a Republican governor and GOP-controlled Legislature:

• In October, U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood told Florida lawmakers to get their "act together" if they wanted stimulus money Congress authorized for high-speed rail.

• In December, those lawmakers passed a high-speed rail bill in special session to address governance and funding.

• Thursday, President Barack Obama went to Florida with Amtrak-riding veteran Joe Biden to announce a $1.25 billion grant to develop Tampa-to-Orlando service for 168-mph trains.

In California, voters had already embraced bullet-train development by approving a $10 billion stake in financing. Illinois, aside from having close friends in Washington, had pledged support to modernize current Chicago-to-St. Louis service.

In the rail sweepstakes, no smart money was on Texas – certainly not after Karen Rae, deputy administrator of the Federal Railroad Administration, said in Austin this month that there "has been no central vision, no common vision for rail in Texas."

With that assessment, we agree.

Gov. Rick Perry and other top leaders needed to have led a charge in behalf of the state's $1.8 billion request that would have advanced high-speed rail for Texas' largest metro areas. Yet they were all but missing and silent. The state did hire a rail chief last month, but Washington is looking for top state leadership in lockstep.

French rail giant SNCF has filed a detailed proposal with the federal government laying out a service concept initially linking cities along our Interstate 35 corridor. The company identified Texas as ripe for development, with major cities spaced at optimum distances for 200-mph bullet trains. SNCF says it could make money operating them but would need a public stake in the construction phase.

Shaping up the state's part of such a venture is rife with political and financial obstacles, but pioneering achievement always demands courage and entails risk.

Transportation ballot issues nationwide typically find favor with voters, and a strong case could be made to urbanized Texans to embrace one of the globe's most technologically advanced travel options.

This would not be today's diesel-powered Amtrak, which often shares track with freight and typically travels in the 70 mph range. Some of the federal grants last week aimed to upgrade current passenger service or start new links based on today's technology.

The next generation of travel should be the goal in Texas. State leaders had organized a push for it 20 years ago, but the effort disintegrated. Today, with the challenge on from other states, Texas should get back in the competition.

Monday, February 1, 2010

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