TEXAS (Texas Tribune) — Ten years ago, a company calling itself Texas Central High-Speed Railway announced plans for a trailblazing bullet train that would whisk passengers between Dallas and Houston in 90 minutes. Company leaders exuded confidence the trains would be running up to 205 miles per hour by 2020.
The potential for an American high-speed rail line captured the imagination of Texans and national train enthusiasts alike. At one point during an event celebrating the unbuilt high-speed rail line, then-Vice President Joe Biden told a Dallas crowd, “You’re going to lead this country into an entirely new era of transportation.”
But a decade on, there are still no new tracks between Dallas and Houston.
Through multiple business entities who often use some version of the Texas Central moniker, developers of the project spent years raising hundreds of millions of dollars for construction, fighting conservative lawmakers’ attempts to dampen their plans and buying land needed to lay the tracks. Perhaps the biggest battle, though, came from legal challenges to the company’s claims that state law allows it to forcibly purchase property when owners aren’t willing to voluntarily sell.
In June, the Texas Supreme Court settled the matter and handed the company what could be a watershed victory, ruling that Texas Central can use eminent domain for its high-profile project. By the time the court ruled, though, Texas Central’s board had reportedly disbanded and its CEO and president had resigned. The project’s original timeline had already gone off the rails (at one point the construction was slated to begin in 2017). And land acquisition seems to have all but stopped in the last two years, according to land records reviewed by The Texas Tribune.
A spokesperson for the company, who is employed by a consulting firm that handles Texas Central’s media requests, says the project is still in the works.
“Texas Central is continuing to seek further investment, and is moving forward with the development of this high-speed train,” Tom Becker, a senior managing director with FTI Consulting, said in a statement. “We appreciate the continued support of our investors, lenders, and other key stakeholders, as we continue to advance this important project.”
But the company and Becker have declined to answer specific questions about the leadership exodus, apparent slump in land acquisition, funding prospects and status of permits Texas Central would need to move forward. A federal transportation agency says it hasn’t had contact with the company in two years. The portion of Texas Central’s website that once listed executive leaders is now blank — as is the list of current job openings.
Texas Central’s relative silence on the recent developments has left supporters of the project, who would like to see two of the state’s largest economic engines more easily connected, in limbo. Opponents, who have long railed against the idea of a private company using eminent domain to seize Texans’ land, are cautiously hoping Texas Central won’t rebound.
Even if the company resurges, there remain major obstacles ahead to acquire land and finance an increasingly expensive project described as “shovel ready” as recently as 2020. The stakes of the high-speed rail project extend beyond the company and Texas. The 240 miles of relatively flat land between Dallas and Houston has long been heralded as the ideal location for what Texas Central and its supporters say could be the first leg of a national high-speed rail system that transforms the country.
There are few infrastructure projects in the country that can compare in size to the Texas rail line. A California high-speed rail project between Los Angeles and San Francisco also faces significant political, financial and legal hurdles. But Michael Bennon, the program manager at Stanford University’s Global Infrastructure Policy Research Initiative, hangs a lot of hope on the Texas project given the relatively short distance, estimated frequency of travel and the landscape between the two cities.
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“If you can’t do high-speed rail in that corridor, it’s hard to imagine it working anywhere else,” Bennon said.
A decade in the making
The announcement of the Dallas-Houston bullet train came more than two decades after another, failed high-speed rail project in Texas that collapsed after $70 million in investments in the early 1990’s.
The most recent attempt at high-speed rail drew widespread attention and support. Texas Central has long billed the project — modeled after the Japanese Shinkansen bullet train — as an accessible, safe alternative to car travel in Texas. Among the selling points: an estimated $36 billion in economic benefits, an environmentally friendly solution to plane travel and a revolutionary step forward for large-scale infrastructure in America. The hype cast the train as a game changer for Texas and America.
“There’s no doubt once people ride this train, they will want trains like this to go other places,” Holly Reed, Texas Central’s former managing director of external affairs, said in 2018.
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In addition to Biden’s 2015 endorsement, plans for high-speed rail in Texas saw formal support from former President Donald Trump, several state leaders and close to 100 businesses and organizations. The company’s board and advisors featured a plethora of prominent names, like billionaire and former Houston Astros owner Drayton McLane and Ron Kirk, the former Dallas mayor and former Texas secretary of state.
But Republican state officials, who have long controlled the Legislature and state government, were caught between the collision of two things they and their voters support — minimal restraints on the private industry and protecting Texas landowners’ property rights.
In the summer of 2016, Texas Central began its efforts in earnest to acquire land along the route of the line, contacting property owners and submitting documentation to retain the option to purchase acres in the 10 counties the rail line would cross.
Along the way, Texans’ free-market enthusiasm often clashed with private property advocates who criticized the efforts of the company to push the railroad through rural land to benefit two already bustling urban behemoths.
This article originally appeared in The Texas Tribune at www.texastribune.org. The Texas Tribune is a nonprofit, nonpartisan media organization that informs Texans – and engages with them – about public policy, politics, government and statewide issues.