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Opinion: Put high-speed rail discussion in Texas on fast track

FORT WORTH, Texas -- Regular-speed passenger rail may be losing ground in Texas just as serious discussion of high-speed rail is being revived, according to an editorial in the Fort Worth Star-Telegram.

Congress this week considered eliminating money-losing Amtrak routes that include the Texas Eagle train running through Fort Worth. But transportation experts, politicians and rail buffs within the state are once again talking of establishing a high-speed rail network linking major Texas cities.

Gov. Rick Perry's proposed Trans Texas Corridor is an ambitious scheme to spend about $175 billion over several decades to relieve traffic congestion in Texas by building a brand-new, 4,000-mile network of superhighways, private toll roads and high-speed passenger rail lines.

Whether his multimodal transportation strategy will become reality remains up in the air.

The same can be said specifically for high-speed rail. It hasn't been talked about much in the Lone Star State since 1994, when a proposed Texas TGV bullet-train project relying on French technology and private funding was derailed by financing problems.

But with Texas expecting a sustained population explosion (another 14 million people by 2040) and already plagued by mounting traffic congestion and air pollution problems in urban areas, it should be obvious to state officials that high-speed rail deserves a fresh in-depth look to determine whether it is a feasible transportation alternative for the future.

A highly detailed study is needed to estimate the costs of establishing a high-speed rail network, how it could be financed, what the potential ridership would be, what specific technology might be used, and where the tracks should run.

Perry's proposed Trans Texas system would create huge transportation corridors that would steer traffic around choked Metroplex freeways. These corridors might be three times as wide as a typical urban freeway and include space for highway lanes, rail lines and utility lines.

High-speed rail advocates are again talking, as they were at the recent Texas Transportation Summit in Irving, about the need to establish a system directly connecting Fort Worth, Dallas, Austin, San Antonio, Houston and possibly the rapidly growing Bryan-College Station area.

Anyone familiar with the potential of high-speed rail -- and its successful use in other countries such as Japan, France and Spain -- should realize that it merits a fresh look in Texas.

High-speed rail could alleviate growing congestion on major highways and at large airports by shifting travelers to another transportation mode.

Based on its performance record in Europe and Japan, high-speed rail also appears to be an exceptionally safe and low-polluting form of travel.

But there remain nagging questions about the efficacy of spending what could be tens of billions of dollars to establish a high-speed rail system in Texas.

Would enough Texans ride it, given their penchant for driving their own cars and trucks and the fact that the state already has an extensive highway system?

Is Texas, despite its growth, still not densely populated enough to make high-speed rail as economically feasible as it is in, say, Japan?

Even if a high-speed rail system were developed in Texas, what would passengers do when they arrived in their destination city? Would there be a sufficient local public transportation network to get them where they need to go once they get off the train?

Last year, Amtrak officials talked of including Fort Worth and the Metroplex, a hub for its Texas Eagle train, in an upgraded network of high-speed rail lines if additional federal funding could be secured. They were talking about trains running at considerably higher speeds than the current Texas Eagle line, but far short of the 200 mph that true high-speed "bullet trains" running on new tracks could achieve.

Now the question appears to be whether there will be a Texas Eagle at all, and if so, for how long. The train runs through Fort Worth as part of Amtrak's Chicago-to-San Antonio route.

If federal funding is cut for Amtrak, it will become even more imperative for Texas officials to look seriously at the state's taking the initiative in setting up its own high-speed rail network. That's why it is time for an in-depth study to determine whether that is feasible.

Jack Z. Smith is a columnist for the Fort Worth Star-Telegram.

Monday, September 30, 2002

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