Rail advocate: High speed train needed for Texas
KILGORE — In six years, a new mode of travel between the state’s two largest metro areas could be a 90-minute train ride over 240 miles of Texas.
That’s the earliest that elevated rail lines and a bullet train connecting Dallas and Houston could be built pending federal permit approvals, a spokeswoman for the investor group building the service told Kilgore Rotarians at Meadowbrook Golf & Event Center on Wednesday.
Passenger rail service with speeds up to 210 mph might be located more than 120 miles from Gregg County, but Holly Reed, managing director of external affairs for Texas Central Partners LLC, said the promise of 10,000 construction jobs, 1,000 permanent jobs and $12 billion in needed civil infrastructure will be an economic boon to all parts of Texas — especially such industry-rich communities as Kilgore.
Those construction jobs include electricians, welders and construction managers — jobs that bring individual yearly salaries of between $42,000 and $80,000.
That message resonated with business leaders in attendance from Kilgore and Longview.
Nancy Murray, a Longview financial broker and member of the city’s Planning and Zoning Commission, said those types of jobs are ripe for graduates of Longview High School, Kilgore College and surrounding educational institutions including the newly opened East Texas Advanced Manufacturing Academy.
“East Texas has the ability,” Murray said. “To me, that’s the thing. We’ve got those graduating that can do a lot of these jobs.”
Texas Central is a private company backed by private investors interested in developing a new high-speed rail system meant to connect passengers between Dallas/Fort Worth and Houston in 90 minutes, which is one-third the time it takes to drive at highway speeds.
Advocates for Texas Central say the Texas Bullet’s estimated $12 billion development could be backed by private equity and free market principles. Those free market principles are based mostly on the more than 14 million people who travel between North Texas and Southeast Texas each year, boosting traffic congestion by 10 percent annually since 2012.
Texas Central advocates seek no federal or state grants for construction or operations, they say, as loans from existing transportation credit programs would likely be sought.
“From the beginning, it was never designed to be a government project,” Reed said. Investors researched the nation’s largest cities to find areas that needed faster connectivity, and what they found were the Dallas/Fort Worth and Houston areas where a combined more than 14 million people live.
“Each of those communities is growing. Congestion is getting worse. Four of the counties that are served by the project are already air quality nonattainment status,” Reed said, “so we’ve got to do something quickly.”
Nonattainment is an Environmental Protection Agency status that handcuffs road construction and other projects in areas where air quality has been deemed perilous.
The S-train planned by Texas Central has operated 53 years in Japan with no accidents or fatalities and an average yearly delay of less than a minute, Reed said, noting that the elevated lines provide no at-grade crossings with roads.
“It’s all electric, and the power is distributed amongst the wheels, so it doesn’t rumble in your chest as it goes by,” she said. “It’s very quiet. It’s very aerodynamic. In fact, this new S-train is 7 tons lighter than its predecessor.”
Security on the train and inside stations could include facial recognition, dog-sniffing and other technology.
“Because we’re not retrofitting post-9/11, we get to design this in a way that you, as a rider, are going to be very comfortable,” Reed said.
In response to concerns raised by longtime rail advocate and Longview Comprehensive Plan Advisory Committee member Charles Florio, Reed said talks are ongoing to better connect the planned bullet train station in Dallas with existing passenger rail systems.
“We know that if we can get you there in an hour and a half but you can’t get where you’re going, you won’t ride the train,” Reed said, “so we have to make that seamless.”
As to ticket affordability, Reed said, “It’s our job to make sure that you want to ride the train, and you buy a ticket. ... I’m not going to guess in five years what that price will be, but we know that we have to get people out of their cars. That’s the only way that this project works.”
There is also resistance, both organized and independent.
Texans Against High Speed Rail is an agency opposed to the bullet train plan. Its website, www.texansagainsthsr.com, says it is based in Jewett, a town southwest of Palestine. However, the Secretary of State’s Office, said its registered agent is Frank Reilly, an Austin-area administrative law attorney.
According to Texans Against High Speed Rail, there are at least 40 known lawsuits filed by Texas Central against property owners.
“As it stands, not only has Texas Central been denied approval to construct, it has not yet established itself as a ‘railroad’ with eminent domain authority in Texas,” according to www.texansagainsthsr.com. “Amazingly, recent sworn testimony from a Texas Central representative revealed that Texas Central does not even have the money to buy the land it needs for the project, or even buy one train. Texas Central also admitted that it does not have sufficient financing in place for construction.”
Reed said Texas Central is making above-market-value offers to landowners, and that, so far, investors have secured about 30 percent of the needed property parcels. Investors were approved Tuesday for a $300 million loan that will get them through permit approval, when they will then seek a loan of about $1 billion to start construction.
All loans incurred by Texas Central will be paid with interest, she said, adding, “You’re not going to loan us money until we have the permits.”