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Texas eyes a piece of the high-speed-rail pie

(The following story by Gordon Dickson appeared on the Fort Worth Star-Telegram website on August 11, 2010.)

IRVING, Texas — The clock is ticking for Texas to get a share of the more than $50 billion for high-speed rail that Congress is expected to approve for the next five to seven years.

"You've got to have it coming out of Texas government leadership," Rod Diridon, a California High-Speed Rail Authority board member, said Tuesday during a break at the Transportation and Infrastructure Summit in Irving. "Someone at the state level has to come up and say, 'I want this to happen.'"

While Texas lags in developing passenger trains that may travel 220 mph, high-speed rail was the big talk at the opening round of the four-day summit, held for the 13th straight year in Las Colinas.

Nationwide, the effort to develop high-speed rail is gaining momentum as officials study models of similar trains from places such as Japan and Brazil, as well as incremental ways to improve Amtrak.

Texas largely missed out on President Barack Obama's original $8 billion pledge for high-speed-rail development a year and a half ago. Since then, Congress has appropriated $2.5 billion more and may add $1 billion.

Fierce competition

But in late 2011, Congress is expected to take up a sweeping transportation bill that would fund five or six years of highways, rail and other transit. About $50 billion is expected to be available for high-speed rail, several officials said.

U.S. Rep. James Oberstar, D-Minn., the House transportation committee chairman, was scheduled to speak Tuesday but was called back to Washington.

States are expected to compete fiercely for the high-speed-rail money, as they do for highway funds. While only a 10 percent local match will be required, the federal government will look to reward states that spread the money as far as possible, including arrangements with private developers.

Bill Glavin, the Texas Department of Transportation's first rail director, acknowledged that getting the money will be tough. So far, the state has received about $7 million to improve the Amtrak Heartland Flyer rail line from Fort Worth to Oklahoma City and $4 million for the Trinity Railway Express between Fort Worth and Dallas.

National scope

Texas has also applied for a share of $50 million in federal grants for high-speed-rail planning. That money could help Texas get proposed high-speed-rail connections between Dallas-Fort Worth and Austin, San Antonio and Houston through the federally required environmental study process. Like many other states, Texas tentatively plans to build these passenger rail lines mostly along corridors shared with freight rail companies such as Fort Worth's BNSF.

"If we succeed in the federal grant application we've made, we may be able to accelerate that," Glavin said.

Leaders of Texas and other states must buy into the concept of high-speed rail for a nationwide system to work, said Art Guzzetti, vice president of the American Public Transportation Association.

"It should be national in scope," Guzzetti said. "The program will be a success if all the states have skin in the game."

But Texas leaders must still work through their vision for a high-speed-rail system. For example, Tarrant County Commissioner Gary Fickes is a board member of the Texas High-Speed Rail and Transportation Corp., and he favors an all-electric high-speed-rail line connecting North Texas with Houston and San Antonio.

Fickes said such a system should be separate from existing freight lines and diesel-powered trains.

"We don't have time to build slow-moving trains that don't compete well with car and airplane travel," he said.

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

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