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What it would take to bring high-speed rail to Texas

ANDREW LIMBONG, HOST:

Bullet trains were invented in Japan in the early 1960s. Since then, countries all over the world have adopted the technology and constructed sprawling networks of high-speed rail lines. Spain, France, Finland, Germany, Turkey and South Korea are just a few of the countries with high-speed lines. China has the world's largest network, covering nearly 28,000 miles. The U.S. lags pretty far behind. While there are some higher speed trains across the country, we've only got one high-speed line, Amtrak's Acela, running between Boston and Washington, D.C. But a recent visit from Japan's prime minister has revived interest in bullet train projects across the country. One of those projects is in Texas, a proposed high-speed line between Houston and Dallas. Amber Gaudet is the transportation and mobility reporter for The Dallas Morning News. Amber, thanks for being here.

AMBER GAUDET: Yeah, thanks for having me.

LIMBONG: All right, so let's start with some of the basics. Texas is a famously big place, right? If you were to hop in a car right now and go from Dallas to Houston, how long would that take?

GAUDET: So right now, it'd be about a 3 1/2-hour drive on I-45. But, you know, probably on a bad day, it might take four hours.

LIMBONG: Wow. And so how much faster would the proposed train line take?

GAUDET: So they're saying the train line would cut that trip down to about 90 minutes.

LIMBONG: Oh, wow. So that's, like, way faster. (Laughter) That's insane. So what are some of the other benefits that Texas hopes to see if this project really does get off the ground?

GAUDET: Yeah. Well, I mean, there's a lot of interest from local officials here, just about the potential to make the region a destination. And, you know, in Dallas, in particular, regional planners, they've pointed to the success of these high-speed rail projects abroad and the potential for a lot of high-dollar commercial real estate around the station. And then also, you know, this would potentially bring in a lot of revenue to the state and help ease highway and airport congestion as the region continues to grow.

LIMBONG: And so, you know, you mentioned the route, and I'm wondering, why Dallas to Houston? Is there anything unique about this route or these cities that makes it an ideal candidate for a high-speed rail?

GAUDET: So at the Southwestern Rail Conference, which is just an annual rail conference, that took place in Hearst last week, Andy Byford - so he's Amtrak's senior VP of high-speed rail development, also known as Train Daddy in the industry...

(LAUGHTER)

GAUDET: ...He said that, you know, a project in this area really ticks all the boxes because you've got two big population centers, you know, Dallas and Houston, obviously, big metro areas. It's got pretty straightforward sort of topography between the two. And we're projected to keep having people move to the area, which is going to bring more - you know, more congestion on the highways, more congestion in airports. And so people are really going to be looking for another option.

LIMBONG: Is this a trip people take a lot? Like, do you ever just, like, hoof it over to Houston for - like, on a Thursday?

GAUDET: I mean, I don't. But I think it's a pretty popular route, especially for business travel. And, I mean, Houston is a pretty major port. And then, you know, there's a lot of business happening in Dallas. So these are pretty happening places in Texas, and I think it makes a lot of sense to want to connect the two.

LIMBONG: Yeah. So the project was announced in 2012 with service to begin in 2020, which obviously didn't happen, right? And now service isn't expected to begin, you know, before the 2030s, I think I read. How are people in Texas feeling about the project at this point?

GAUDET: There's definitely some skepticism as to whether it's actually, you know, ever going to happen. I think, though, on the other hand, especially from folks involved with the project, that we're hearing a lot more optimism and a lot more momentum lately. You know, in December, they were awarded a Corridor ID grant for the project, which, you know, is only 500,000. It's just a small piece 'cause this project is supposed to cost about 30 billion, but it's a step in the right direction, right? And so on top of that, I think we're seeing some excitement - you know, some broader excitement about the project. Secretary Buttigieg has signaled that he's - he said that he supports a project like this. Byford has said that the secretary had a really good experience in Japan with high-speed rail and that there's just - there's a lot of momentum - or there's a lot of enthusiasm for this project at the federal level.

LIMBONG: Yeah. So this project was tied up in the courts for years over land rights. How do people who live outside of Houston and Dallas feel about it?

GAUDET: Yeah, there's definitely some folks who - you know, they view this sort of as a project that just benefits people in urban areas. And, you know, there's definitely some pushback, especially about land acquisition. So about 90% of the rail line is going to go through public property. But, you know, the remaining 10% or so is on private development, and there are a lot of folks who just - they're not on board with this. They say like, hey, this is not going to benefit me. This is for city folks. And they also feel like, you know, their tax dollars shouldn't go to a project that they don't feel is going to benefit them.

LIMBONG: You'd mentioned that this is expected to cost - what? - 30 billion, right?

GAUDET: That's the latest estimate that we've heard. Yeah.

LIMBONG: Who's going to foot that bill?

GAUDET: That's one of the big questions that has yet to be answered about the project. Byford has said that the leadership can apply for a federal state partnership for grant funding. We haven't heard any details of what exactly that means or what that's going to look like. But project leadership has said before that they want to fund the project with a mix of private and public dollars. So exactly how much Texans would be on the hook for this project, we're just not sure yet. And I think that's one of the major hurdles for it still.

LIMBONG: You know, there are some high-speed rail projects in development in other parts of the country, but high-speed rail really doesn't seem to have caught on in the U.S. compared to places like Japan or in Europe. Why do you think that is?

GAUDET: Yeah, I mean, this is something that Byford actually addressed earlier this week, and I thought it was interesting that he likened it to when the U.S. was building the federal highway system. So, you know, he mentioned there's kind of a lot of skepticism about - why do we need this, things are working fine as they are - and just all the sort of moving pieces that went into it. And now we see the federal highway system is indispensable, right? I can say that here in Texas, I think we have a pretty strong car culture. And so, you know, some people hear rail, and they just say, well, you know, that's not for me. That's not going to benefit me. I like to drive. And so I think some of those factors are at play, too.

LIMBONG: Yeah. Do you feel - in your reporting on this, do you feel that other parties are watching this route as kind of a test case?

GAUDET: I think so. Something that Amtrak leadership mentioned is there are other routes, like you mentioned, being looked at, but I think this one is sort of the one that has garnered the most attention and the most excitement. So my take is kind of - if it's not going to happen here, I don't know that it's going to happen elsewhere, just given the push that we're seeing to move this project forward.

LIMBONG: Amber Gaudet is the transportation and mobility reporter for The Dallas Morning News. Amber, thanks so much.

GAUDET: Thanks.

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