UPDATE (10/01/09, 1:27 pm): The Wall Street Journal also supports high-speed rail, stating that contrary to critics’ claims, American cities could support high-speed rail if political will and funding fell in line.
America 2050 has released a report listing what it deems to be the top high-speed rail routes in the United States, and a Houston-Dallas route ranks tenth nationally. The only routes that rank above it are in the Northeast Corridor, which already has limited high-speed rail service, and in California, which is building a high-speed rail system. Voters in California approved $9 billion in bonds last November to begin construction on the project.
America 2050 examined a number of factors for the report, including metropolitan size, distance between the two cities, transit connections at each end, economic productivity, traffic congestion, and whether or not the cities are located in a megaregions. America 2050 describes megaregions as “networks of metropolitan regions with shared economies, infrastructure and natural resource systems, stretching over distances of roughly 300 miles - 600 miles in length.” Houston is the only city in two megaregions - the Texas Triangle, which includes Dallas-Fort Worth, Austin, and San Antonio, and the Gulf Coast megaregion, stretching from Brownsville to New Orleans and the Florida Panhandle.
A route from Austin to Dallas ranked 45th, while Austin to Houston was 54th, Houston to San Antonio was 56th, and Dallas to San Antonio came in 70th. The report notes, “Although these Texas corridors scored well in overall population, length of corridor, and economic activity, the lack of (or limited) existing local and regional transit systems in these cities reduced their overall rankings.”
America 2050 also proposed a three-phase plan to implement high-speed rail across the country. The first phase includes the Northeast Corridor, California, and routes linking Chicago to Minneapolis, St. Louis, and Detroit. The second phase would include the Houston to Dallas connection, as well as lines in the Pacific Northwest, Florida, and from Washington, D.c. to Atlanta. The final phase would connect the rest of the Texas Triangle and include connections to Oklahoma and Kansas. It would also connect Albuquerque to Denver and include significant extensions throughout the Southeast and the Great Lakes region.
The plan is somewhat more extensive than the current federal proposal, which links Houston to New Orleans and Atlanta but not to the rest of the Texas Triangle.
But in the effort to rely on empirical data, the group’s HSR rankings do not acknowledge two factors that are likely to influence the final decision on which rail corridors to fund.
The first, inevitably and unfortunately, is political clout. Many members of Congress have already started lobbying in favor of their home-state HSR proposals, and state officials are already grappling with how seriously to accommodate local resistance to rail planning.
The second factor rarely noted in America 2050’s analysis is right of way; namely, the difficulty of negotiating with freight railroads over control of existing tracks and with local governments over sites for future track construction.
Right of way is one of the major obstacles that has prevented Amtrak’s Acela trains from reaching their ideal “top speed” of 150 miles per hour on all but a few occasions, and while the northeast corridor is the most heavily traveled passenger rail route in the nation, it is also riddled with potential right of way claims from seven freight railroads and eight local commuter railroads. (Some midwestern HSR advocates, by contrast, have suggested a plan that uses existing rights of way.)