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Texan takes on high-speed rail heavyweights

By   /   December 2, 2015  /   News  /   No Comments

Deprived of facts and figures, Kyle Workman is often left to interpret signals sent by his opponents, who are committed to financing a high speed rail line from Dallas to Houston any way they can.

And no matter how they say it, Workman, president of Texans Against High Speed Rail, believes “any way they can” means building it on the backs of federal and state taxpayers and private property owners who would be forced to give up their land.

Take Vice President Joe Biden’s remarks just before Thanksgiving from the roof of the South Side lofts in the rapidly gentrifying Cedars neighborhood in Dallas.

“Folks, you don’t even know it yet, but you’re going to lead this country into an entirely new era of transportation,” Biden said.

In the usual gushing and uncritical way the legacy media covers high speed rail, the transportation blogger for the Dallas Morning News called Biden the highest-ranking official in America to christen the Texas Central Partners proposal a “watershed American project.”

Photo: www.japantimes.co.jp

RISING COSTS WITH A BULLET: Texans Against High Speed Rail warn taxpayers they’ll get stuck with the cost of a high speed rail train like this one.

Workman’s interpretation is quite different. “The fact that he was there leads me to believe they’re on the ropes,” he says. “It tells me they had to bring in the big guy to keep this going.”

The interpretation that high speed rail can’t or won’t be built in Texas without substantial taxpayer burden was confirmed for Workman by Ron Kirk, former Democratic mayor of Dallas, who served four years as the U.S. trade representative for the Obama administration and is now senior adviser for Texas Central Partners.

If it’s possible for Texas Central to qualify for federal loans to build its rail line, “we will aggressively pursue those,” Kirk told the Morning News.

From its inception, Texas Central has insisted it would finance the $10 billion rail line with private money. State legislators adjourned the past session without committing state taxpayer dollars for high speed rail.

But Texas Central’s leverage of all this federal muscle suggests something very different to Workman, who has spent the past several months carrying a warning to taxpayers and property owners in the general path of a Dallas-to-Houston rail line.

Worse than sticking state taxpayers with the bill up front for building the line, Workman says Texas Central might assemble most of the $10 billion from an eager federal government and Central Japan Railway Company, which has made no secret of its desire to establish a Texas beachhead for its bullet train technology.

Texas Central says it has lined up about a dozen Dallas and Houston investors who have kicked in $75 million to move the project along. The press was there to celebrate with them without seriously questioning where the other $9.925 billion would come from, Workman says.

These investors stand to profit handsomely, but only if somebody else pays for the project. “All of the assumptions for this project are based on the idea that nobody should worry about it,” Workman says. “There’s money to be made on either end.”

According to Texas Central, the money to be made in overall economic impact over the next 25 years is a staggering $36.3 billion. While the company posts its summary report on its website, it has refused to share the detailed report to explain how it arrived at an economic multiplier of more than 3.5 times.

In all of the cheerleading for the new era of transportation — never mind that rail travel is more than 200 years old — and the bounty that will follow, no one has been able to say for sure whether a high speed rail line could break even, let alone make a profit.

For Workman, that is the scary part. The bullet train company would be willing to take a loss to establish a working system in North America. A lost investment of $4 billion to $5 billion in federal tax dollars is a pittance compared to the tens of billions being poured into the misbegotten California high speed rail project.

This torturous and very low speed California trip is exquisitely chronicled by Joseph Vranich and Wendell Cox for the Reason Foundation.

“The point is the Dallas-to-Houston line makes no sense from an economic and transportation standpoint,” Workman says. “But once it’s built it’ll be, ‘to hell with the train, the government won’t let it fail.’”

There is no evidence to suggest Workman would be right or wrong, because in a modern America where passenger train travel is a money-sucking government monopoly named Amtrak, there are no wholly privately funded passenger train lines, high speed or otherwise.

A private consortium asked the Texas Legislature to approve what would have been North America’s first high speed rail line in 1990, but was unable to raise even its first $170 million privately.

All Aboard Florida, a much more modest private rail proposal that is supposed to connect Miami, Fort Lauderdale, West Palm Beach and Orlando at a cost of $3 billion and rising by 2017 has yet to convince voters to accept $1.75 billion in bond debt, while lawsuits have been threatened all along the line.

“There never has been a privately funded high speed rail line here because it doesn’t make any economic, transportation, environmental or even safety sense,” said Randal O’Toole, a transportation analyst with the Cato Institute. “Rail transportation may make sense moving freight with 100 cars from point A to B, but not moving one or two or 10 cars of people from one place to another.”

The track record everyone in Texas should pay attention to is in California, where a line originally estimated to cost $8 billion is now expected to top $100 billion. All of this on the backs of taxpayers before knowing how much more they will be expected to pay to operate the line every day, O’Toole says.

By comparison, the Federal Railroad Administration has given three grants totaling a little more than $24 million to Texas, all of it for planning and minor construction upgrades in anticipation of a high speed rail line.

“It doesn’t matter the amount, once the government has given the funding you have to justify the expense to taxpayers to spend more,” O’Toole says. “No one is going to say to taxpayers that $10 million or whatever we gave you was a stupid waste of taxpayer money.”

O’Toole finds it ironic that with the development of trains capable of speeds of 110 mph after the Second World War, the federal government imposed a 79 mph speed limit for safety reasons as it built the interstate highway system. Whatever advantage there was to riding the rails the feds gave away to the automobile.

Workman was encouraged in this past session by the Legislature’s emphatic support for increased funding for roads through the Texas Department of Transportation.

Not a lot was said about passenger rail, but Workman says he intends to stay on the road warning farmers and ranchers and homeowners their family’s property wealth is at risk if their state representatives give in to the temptation of “free” federal money for high speed rail.

“We have to keep pounding the message. These people aren’t going away,” Workman says. “We need to be aggressively defensive.”


Mark Lisheron was a former Austin-based reporter for Watchdog.org.