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Developers say recent Texas high-speed rail study lacks proper data

The developers behind the plan to connect Dallas and Houston via high-speed rail fired back Friday against conclusions in a study that warned the project may run massive deficits.

Texas Central Partners plans to construct a 240-mile Houston-to-Dallas rail line funded by private investors. The company has repeatedly said that it won’t seek public funding, but the Reason Foundation said in a report this month that the train line could cost taxpayers $21.5 billion and could run at a $537 million deficit for the first 40 years of operation.

A Texas Central spokeswoman said Friday that the company tried for months preceding publication of the report to contact the Reason Foundation to provide the latest data and background information, but their calls and emails went unacknowledged.

Texas Central also said the data Reason used was outdated, and further claimed that Reason supported the project in earlier reports, but reversed course in its latest study without cause.

“You can imagine our surprise,” Holly Reed, Texas Central managing director of external affairs, told the Dallas Business Journal in an interview Friday evening.“They had weighed in very positively on the project. When we completed the latest ridership study, we reached out to them to have them look at that data and did not hear back from them.”

The 65-page Reason report, "Texas High Speed Rail: Caution Ahead," by Baruch Feigenbaum, the assistant director of transportation policy at the Reason Foundation, examined ridership trends, the cost of building the high-speed rail line and other factors. The report labeled the rail line a "boondoggle," and said such projects rarely succeed without public funding.

Feigenbaum responded over the weekend that "the Texas Central folks are not being accurate."

"For months, I tried to get access to their data but the only way they would provide it is if I signed a non-disclosure agreement," Feigenbaum said in an email to the Dallas Business Journal. "I reiterated that I was not going to sign a non-disclosure agreement because then I am unable to write about the study."

Reed said Texas Central’s ridership studies are superior to Reason’s because Texas Central’s are more recent and incorporated interviews with Texans who frequently travel between Dallas and Houston by car, bus or plane, for business, family visits and other purposes.

Travelers make roughly 14 million trips between Houston and North Texas per year, with most of those by car, Reed said.

“Because this project is data driven and market driven, it is critical that we have the most accurate data," she said.

Reed said Reason based its conclusions on the Texas Department of Transportation’s 2013 Statewide Ridership Analysis Report, which specifically states that it “was not intended to provide a detailed ridership analysis of any individual corridor, since many assumptions were applied to all of the corridors statewide and would need to be modified to more accurately reflect the characteristics of any particular corridor.”

The conclusions of the latest Reason report contrast sharply with previous articles from the Reason Foundation, which called out bullet train “opponents” who in Reason’s words, “mistakenly claim that taxpayers will be stuck subsidizing the rail line." A previous Reason report also stated that “there is little or no risk to taxpayers, federal or state,” Texas Central pointed out in a statement released Friday.

Reed also addressed the latest Reason study’s conclusion that the Dallas-Houston market is “well-served” by aviation and buses.

“Texans have told us they want a choice, a new choice, in how they travel in between these cities,” she said. “That’s what came out of the study that we have done. As the state and these (Dallas and Houston metro areas) grow, the congestion grows between them."

Aside from the Reason Foundation study, the high-speed rail project has been gaining momentum in recent weeks, with Texas Central reporting last week that it has reached agreements giving the company the option to acquire more than 30 percent of the land estimated to be needed for the bullet train’s route in the 10-county stretch.

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