Every few years some Texan travels to France, Japan, China or some other country that has fast trains, goes for a ride, and is so blown away by how absolutely cool the whole thing is that he or she starts having visions of bullet trains for bullet heads across the Lone Star State, or at least connecting Houston, Dallas and San Antonio. U.S. Congresswoman Sheila Jackson Lee (D-Houston) is just the latest person from our great state to fall in love with the notion of high speed rail.
Not that it’s anything new. The steam-powered Rock Island Rocket roared up and down the rails between Houston and Dallas back in the 1930s. But passenger rail service in Texas was doomed by cheap gasoline, the rapid development of one of the nation’s best highway systems beginning in the 1950s and the rise of low-fare commuter airline service by Braniff in the 1960s, Trans Texas in the 1970s and Southwest Airlines from the 1980s on. But none of that was enough to stop the bullet heads from dreaming of super trains screaming over the Texas prairie at breakneck speeds.
Those dreams, however, rarely progressed beyond the proposal stage. As a teenager growing up in Houston, my friends and I would ride our motorbikes around looking for some interesting spot to stop and enjoy a forbidden cigarette. One of our favorite smoke break locations was a place southwest of the then city limits, where a very futuristic-looking train sat on a monorail in the middle of the rice fields. Not that it was much of a train (just two cars, including the locomotive) nor much of a monorail (less than three times the length of the cars themselves), but it struck our teenaged sensibilities as really cool-looking, like something out of a science fiction movie. I don’t recall whose idea the thing was or how much money had been wasted on it, but that was as far as it ever progressed.
The sensibilities of the liberal mind are much like those of boys in their early teens. It doesn’t matter if some utopian pipe dream is economically feasible, only if it looks cool. To Rep. Jackson Lee and the like-minded left, it looks cool. It must have looked really cool in the 1980s when the Texas High-Speed Rail Authority was created. The state chose a French-American consortium to build a private-sector-funded system linking Houston, Dallas, San Antonio and Austin with bullet trains barreling down the line at speeds up to 240 mph. But by 1992 the plan was abandoned. Liberals blamed uncultured country bumpkins who didn’t cotton to the notion of having their farms and ranches fall prey to imminent domain and the evil capitalists who ran Southwest Airlines, although there were other challenges, as well. Among them was the high cost of high speed rail. The price tag quickly rose from the original estimate of $5.6 billion to $6.8 billion, and besides, the consortium failed to meet state deadlines. They always do when such projects move from the proposal stage to the planning stage.
Not that it’s only liberals who embrace the idea of high speed rail. A few erstwhile conservatives have also been bitten by the bullet train bug. In 2002, Gov. Rick Perry proposed what would have been one of nation’s biggest privatized toll road projects, The Trans Texas Corridor. This grand plan would have included over 4,000 miles of 10-lane divided toll roads, plus high speed rail, freight rail and utilities from the Mexican border to Arkansas, with a west-east spur running from New Mexico to New Orleans. The major problem with the TTC was that the plans were made and contracts signed without any public input, and many of the provisions were best described as “controversial.” The public outcry against the governor’s grand vision rose to such a volume that in 2009, the Texas Department of Transportation (TxDOT) decided to scale the project back and attempt to implement it in piecemeal fashion. Two years later, the state legislature committed a mercy killing with the passage of HB 1201, which formally canceled the Trans-Texas Corridor.
But in 2010, the federal government got into the act when U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood announced a $5.6 million grant to plan a passenger rail line from Oklahoma City to the Rio Grande, just part of $2.4 billion in federal funding for high-speed rail projects. But the grant was only half of what TxDOT had requested for what it estimated would be a $14 million study, and high-speed rail from the Mexican border to Oklahoma would cost billions of dollars. Even some passenger rail proponents realize that the money for high speed rail, even in relatively prosperous Texas, just isn’t there. Many would be happy just to reduce the time required to ride Amtrak from Austin to Dallas from the current six hours to something like three, which is doable even at speeds under 80 mph if passenger service didn’t have to be squeezed through the existing Fort Worth railroad bottleneck.
Now the ghost of bullet trains past has risen yet again. Fresh from a taxpayer-paid junket to Japan, South Korea and China, Rep. Jackson Lee is singing the praises of high speed rail. The Japanese gave her a ride from Osaka to Tokyo on their world-renown bullet train, and now the Houston Democrats wants to pay those same Japanese and the South Koreans with Other People’s Money (ours) to help Texas build a high-speed rail line between Houston and Dallas. It can be done without government invoking eminent domain, she claims, and it would create jobs and attract capital, although she didn’t say for whom the jobs would be created or from whom the capital would flow.
Where was that concern for job creation in December, I wonder, when Jackson Lee voted against the Keystone XL pipeline? If she really wants to create jobs for Americans instead of Japanese and Koreans, why doesn’t she get behind the idea of giving tax breaks to companies to convert the nation’s truck stops from diesel to clean-burning and much cheaper natural gas? It’s not like we’re not sitting on top of trillions of cubic feet of the stuff. We’ve also got more coal than we know what to do with. How about tax breaks for entrepreneurs who want to cleanly convert coal to liquid motor fuels? Alas, such common-sense solutions are not detectable by bullet head radar.
Interestingly, the Congresswoman doesn’t just want to see the bullet trains rocketing across the Texas prairie. She told reporters that she wants to lobby the Obama administration to support high speed rail in the Northeast Corridor and California as well as the Lone Star State. Not that it will take much convincing of the spendaholic Democrats inside the beltway to borrow more money from the Chinese to give the Japanese and Koreans while sending the bill to future taxpayers, also known as our children and grandchildren. And what will they get for their money? Probably not much more than a blank bullet of a train, shot from a non-starter’s pistol and abandoned to sit motionless in some field and rust away.