High-speed rail in Texas?

by on July 8, 2009 at 7:36 am in Economics | Permalink

I have never blogged high-speed rail issues because I don't (yet?) have a point of view on them.  I can see the benefits from subsidizing metro systems and buses.  I don't know whether most of the planned subsidies to high speed rail will pay off.

Ed Glaeser, in a recent Op-Ed, criticized high speed rail for Texas.  On this issue, Ryan Avent gets upset at Glaeser:

Of course, Texas has four of the nation's fastest growing
metropolitan areas, all within a few hundred miles of each other — an
ideal distance for high-speed rail. Austin, Dallas, Houston, and San
Antonio are currently home to some 16 million people, and those
metropolitan areas have added 3 million people since 2000 alone.
Congestion is an issue within those metropolitan areas and will continue to worsen as they grow.

only is it entirely appropriate to build transportation infrastructure
with future growth in mind, it's imperative. America's current
sprawling growth pattern resulted in no small part from the mass
construction of interstates and highways, which drew suburbanites to
previously unsettled areas.

Moreover, Texan metropolitan
areas are working to accommodate future growth in a denser fashion by
building miles of metropolitan transit systems. Transit and rail are
complementary technologies, each of which will increase the return on
investment of the other.

My question is simple: how could you take rail from Dallas to Houston and cope once you got there?  San Antonio I can see, at least provided you will camp out in city center (a mistake, but that's a question for a different day).  I am willing to be converted, but what are the odds of such a line attracting significant patronage, with or without ongoing subsidy to the fares and not just to line construction?  Or is the vision that everyone takes the train and then rents a car on arrival?  According to Matt Yglesias, the plan won't even directly link Houston to Dallas.  By the way, here are some of the other planned links from Texas.  Will people really take trains from Houston to Meridien, Mississippi

Inquiring minds wish to know.

1 Leigh Caldwell July 8, 2009 at 8:15 am

I don’t know if I’m representative, but my most common usage pattern for long-distance rail (in the UK) is to travel to another city, take a taxi to a meeting, and then make the reverse journey back to London the same day.

For this purpose there’s no better mode of transport – I would hate to have to spend 3-4 hours driving each way and be unable to work on the train, and flying would both be more expensive and a major hassle.

The other major use is commuting, and people will often spend an hour each morning and evening on a commuter train followed by a local bus or taxi to their destination. However this relies on high-density living with lots of local stations and has a strong network effect – the metro rail network around most cities in the UK is strong.

The broader network effect is important too – rail coverage in the UK is comprehensive and you can get within 5 miles of nearly anywhere. This helps to acclimatise people to the habit of using trains. If you have to travel 20 miles once you arrive in Houston then perhaps it wouldn’t work so well.

2 stephen July 8, 2009 at 8:48 am

You are absolutely right, Tyler. There is no public transportation structure in any of the major Texas cities to make intra-state rail viable for a very long time. I would much prefer to use high speed rail when I travel to Houston and Dallas, but as of right now it wouldn’t make any sense. You would still have to use the buss system upon arrival, and that is just not acceptable.

In addition, Matt is right, there is no way we are going to pony up the extra taxes to pay for any of this, especially when the State is already trying to cut back spending. We have no desire to be California.

3 Erik July 8, 2009 at 8:59 am

I agree with the first two commenters, but the second point is more pertinent to the debate. I am a moderate user of Acela to from New York to Boston. In terms of total time, driving, flying, and the train are all about the same. I can work on the train but cannot work in the car or really while flying, since the “flight” is really just a 3.5 hour amalgam of 30 minute intervals (to airport, to security, to gate, etc.) none of which can be very productive.

I recently traveled in France from Paris to Avignon via high speed rail. An 8.5 hour drive took 2.5 hours by train! If any level of speed near that could be realized, the trip from New York to Boston would be cut down to 1.5 hours. The reason that this is not possible, of course, is that Amtrak shares rails with the local commuter trains in the NY City area. In order to enable true high speed rail, entirely new high speed tracks would need to be built with their own rights of way. Attaining this right of way would be very expensive and could well require the use of eminent domain (although, in theory, it should be possible to leverage the right of way for the interstates and power lines that the government already has). If it were realized, it would put the airline routes between NYC and Boston (and DC) out of business. These are the things that make it unlikely to ever be realized, but it would be a huge savings in manhours and fossil fuels.

By comparison, building a much more useless high speed rail through Texas is much easier, doesn’t really threaten any air routes (since most people drive today), and would not entail such complicated right-of-way issues. However, as noted, without the infrastructure to support someone without a car in the destination city, a high speed rail would be severely under-utilized. Perhaps there would be the same-day business travel, but I still imagine culturally many people in Texas would still want their cars.

I think that it’s a great example of politicians going after the politically expedient and logistically easier option over the strategically smart option. It allows them to tout a victory in building infrastructure and high speed rail, even if it is under-utilized, as opposed to backing a project that is a guaranteed success but that comes with much greater risk.

4 Tyler Cowen July 8, 2009 at 9:18 am

For future comments, if you could (just a request, not a requirement), please indicate whether you have actually visited these cities in Texas.

5 Jerome July 8, 2009 at 9:39 am

I lived in Houston and Austin for 22 years. We actually have public transit in Houston, but its not widely known. And you can get around nicely in the Museum District, Medical District, and places around that area rather well.
Dallas has a rail system in place currently, too. Last I heard the routes were not that great in terms of placement. But they have also seen a decent amount of development in the downtown restaurant district that includes hotels, arena upgrades, etc.
Austin (left off your discussion list) is VERY easy to get around without a car. I could drop you off downtown and you are a decent walk to the UT football stadium, capital building, Sixth Street (bars and restaurants), Lake Austin, and the UT campus. But both of these cities have an existing means of public transit to expand off of and are not as impossible to get around currently as you make them out to be. Something that the authors of several prominent blogs could have bothered to check up on before writing posts dedicated to the subject. But I guess we only hold them to research standards on their academic work?

6 John Dewey July 8, 2009 at 9:41 am

Have any commenters ever lived in Dallas or Fort Worth? I’ve spent significant portions of my 58 years in the two metro areas.

Dallas and Houston will not rely on train transit for more than a tiny portion of their transport. The cities are far too dispersed. Given the existing investment in millions of homes and workplaces, that’s not going to change.

Texans can be fooled into paying for mass transit, but they’re not going to use it. Since the mid-80’s Dallas and its surrounding suburbs have paid over $5 billion on train taxes to build a rail system for commuters. Despite light rail lines on the busiest corrider, and commuter rail connecting the four largest cities, less than 40,000 folks use the trains daily. That’s in a metro area with a population of over 5 million.

Have you guys even visited Texas in any of the months of May through October? Anyone using mass transit would be forced to spend many minutes exposed to the Texas heat and humidity, either walking to and from transit stops or waiting to connect. Few office workers are going to choose that option and arrive at workplaces drenched.

What guarantees that mass transit will fail in Texas cities? The fact that commutes are not that bad, and that commuting costs represent a very small part of household budgets. So why would Texas commuters give up the convenience of their cars?

If commuters do not give up their cars, the mass transit system will not have the funds to grow – at least, as long as planners insist on building trains. Without intracity transit systems, of course, intercity rail systems will not be economical for trips of 200 or so miles. It’s too easy to hop into a car and drive three hours.

7 Phillip Huggan July 8, 2009 at 9:48 am

I’m mildly on board for high-speed rail, obviously better to construct in recession, when I read the civic planning arguments. It is simply more efficient to construct one’s city around a downtown hub. Airports are never near skyscrapers, high speed rail can be in many cities.

8 Micael July 8, 2009 at 9:50 am

It’s “Meridian, MS” not “Meridien”.

9 John Dewey July 8, 2009 at 10:03 am

reed: “I have been to Dallas and Austin. … both cities are pretty dense at the core”

Dallas is probably the most dispersed major city in the U.S., if not the world. And it’s becoming less desne, not more. Major employers such as EDS, Burlington Northern, Frito Lay, Dr Pepper, Sabre Systems, and others have abandoned the central business districts of Dallas and Fort Worth. When JC Penney relocated headquarters from New York, it choose far surburban Frisco, not downtown Dallas.

From what I’ve seen of Houston lately – from what my two brothers living there have shown me – I’m pretty sure that city is de-urbanizing as well.

10 Right Wing-nut July 8, 2009 at 10:09 am

We moved to Austin in 92. I’ve attended several conventions in Houston, SA, Dallas and Ft Worth over the years.

While Austin is by far the smallest of these cities, the “downtown” area is just not that important if you are in tech. This was driven home last year when I was looking for work as a web developer. I had one downtown phone screen & one interview out of about twenty. In fact, there is almost a tech ring, with Intel being the only major employer that I know that is within a mile or so of downtown. And bus transport is abysmal. It can take hours to get from north to south. Neither the recently added (after being voted down four times) commuter rail, nor the (locally opposed) toll roads will or even can address the needs of a business out-of-towner for tech.

I grew up on the farm, which makes me a skinflint for things like taxis. You haven’t lived until you’ve walked a mile in a suit in June in Houston, San Antonio, Dallas or Fort Worth.

11 babar July 8, 2009 at 10:19 am

i’m a new york city resident and rely on public transportation here; i’ve visited but not lived in these cities in texas. the points about the dispersion of the cities in texas and the smallish amount of money that people spend on their commutes in texas are good ones.

imho the only way that physical investment in public transportation makes clear sense is if it makes it possible for people give up their cars entirely; this isn’t going to happen in most cities in the US any time soon.

i would try some kind of luxury bus / car-sharing or car-pooling arrangement — perhaps with the help of the internet to make it more point to point — long before committing billions of dollars to parallel physical infrastructure.

12 MonkeyMan July 8, 2009 at 10:51 am


Well-played, but the difference is you can put an airport anywhere b/c it just needs to have lots of space, including for rental lots. Meanwhile, train stations need to be in land-expensive central locations to be useful. But other than that, your point stands.

13 anonymous July 8, 2009 at 11:05 am

Developing a high-speed transportation infrastructure will take at least a decade and probably two (not just construction, but eminent domain disputes, environmental impact lawsuits, budget constraints, etc). It’s worth pausing to consider how the Internet and AI might develop during that time, obviating the need for high-speed transportation.

In a Kindle/iPhone/cloud computing world, you will be able to work equally productively no matter where you are, having full access to all necessary documents and information and coworkers and apps even while in transit. Under those circumstances, low-speed automated transportation might be perfectly suitable (individual computer-controlled solar-powered rickshaws with machine vision for navigating obstacles, traveling 10 miles per hour, that you can lie down and take a nap in).

In any case, telepresence will make most business travel unnecessary. This market segment will probably shrink considerably in the next decade or two, and it’s one of the most profitable for transportation companies. Tourism and family visits probably won’t even offset operating costs, let alone pay back the initial investment.

Perhaps a far better investment in high-speed infrastructure would involve building out ubiquitous wireless broadband rather than point-to-point transportation.

14 John Dewey July 8, 2009 at 11:51 am

Brian: “Anyone who drives the I-35 deathtrap is pining for an alternative.”

Southwest Airlines has been providing a low priced alternative for decades. But they capture a very tiny share of the Dallas-Austin and Dallas-San Antonio travel.

One reason high speed rail won’t meet most travel needs is that people don’t just from Dallas to Austin or Austin to Dallas. Rather, they travel Plano to Austin; or Georgetown to Irving; or Round Rock to Dallas; or Pflugerville to McKinney; or Leander to Arlington. A high speed rail line won’t reach all those destinations. So most trips will require transfers – either train to cab or train to bus or car to train.

Traveling on the high speed train will require loading and unloading – which means delays on both ends. We see that now with plane travel. Plane travel combined with rental cars or cabs or mass transit becomes just too inconvenient and expensive for short trips.

15 Matt July 8, 2009 at 12:15 pm

My question is simple: how could you take rail from Dallas to Houston and cope once you got there?

I’ve lived in Houston for about 11 years. Let us suppose that the rail terminal is built within walking distance of one of Houston’s light rail stops. Here are a few of the things to see and do along the line.

Hotels: Hilton, Crowne Plaza, Hyatt, Magnolia, Doubletree, Courtyard Marriot, Four Seasons, etc.
Restaurants: Shula’s, Vick and Anthony’s, Treebeard’s, Massa’s, The Flying Saucer, Strip House, Morton’s, etc.
Sports: Minute Maid Park (Astros), Toyota Center (Rockets, Aeros)
Culture/Entertainment: Houston Grand Opera Wortham Theater Complex, Verizon Wireless Theater, Alley Theater, Jones Hall, Hobby Center, and many fine examples of Art Deco architecture
Recreation: Sam Houston Park, Buffalo Bayou Park, Eleanor Tinsley Park, Tranquility Park, Discovery Green
Shopping: Macy’s, Park Shops, Pavillions, the famous Brown Book Shop, and Houston’s underground tunnel system

Other light rail areas:
Sports: Reliant Stadium (Texans)
Culture/Entertainment: Museum of Natural Science, Museum of Fine Arts Houston, Contemporary Arts Museum, Holocaust Museum, the fantastic Children’s Museum of Houston, and literally dozens of other fine museums and galleries throughout Houston’s museum district
Recreation: The Houston Zoo, Hermann Park (including the Japanese garden, golf course, and the Miller Outdoor Theater)
Shopping: miles of mid-town shops and restaurants including the flower district

There’s also Rice University, and the Texas Medical Center, the world’s largest medical complex including 13 hospitals, 2 medical schools, 4 nursing schools, and 28 other major medical institutions.

Additionally, if you take the Metro Bus system, your options expand even further. You can explore all of Houston’s mid-town, Montrose, Memorial Park, the upscale Galleria area, Chinatown, Houston Heights, and destinations reaching all the way out into the suburbs.

I could probably think of more, but I have work to do. In short, you’d cope.

16 Anonymous Frustated Coward July 8, 2009 at 12:17 pm

I’m from Houston (15 yrs), living in DC, and I travel to NY every week. (I still own my car, but Metro everyday)
Lived in Dallas (1yr), San Antonio (1yr), and Austin (11 yrs).

1) “how could you take rail from Dallas to Houston and cope once you got there?”

You either catch a cab, or have a friend/family member drive you to your final destination.
Houston does have light rail (something that people fought against for years), but it’s mostly for tourists. Dallas also has the DART, which depending on who you talk to, is relatively popular.

In Texas, only the poorest of the poor ride the city bus.

2) What are the odds of such a line attracting significant patronage, with or without ongoing subsidy to the fares and not just to line construction?

Odds are decent.

Driving takes between 3 and 4 hours, and maybe 1 tank of gas
The plane takes less than 1 hour, and 150 if you book the day of, but only 50 if you book far enough in advance
The bus….takes forever.
Currently, If you took Amtrak between the 2, you have to go to San Antonio, and it can take more than a day to do it.

So if they truly built a high speed line, and charged between 50-75% of the airplane ticket, you’d get enough people willing to spend an additional hour of travel time.

But just like plane travel, you’d need rental cars and taxis to get around.

17 Mr. Econotarian July 8, 2009 at 12:29 pm

“America’s current sprawling growth pattern resulted in no small part from the mass construction of interstates and highways, which drew suburbanites to previously unsettled areas.”

I’d argue that America’s current sprawling growth patten also resulted in no small part from 1) zoning laws reducing density and mixed use and 2) white flight from cities during the 60’s (unfortunately, due to the combination of historic institutional racism, public housing, public schools, and some unfortunate rioting incidents). My parents left for the suburbs after the 1968 riots in DC.

I regularly fly from LA to Houston (George Bush International) for business. I’ve never been in “the city” as most of the high-tech firms are way, way outside the city in suburbs.

18 Ironman July 8, 2009 at 12:36 pm

Quoting, well, myself:

Economically speaking, of all the ways to transport people between cities, rail is perhaps the stupidest. Nowhere else do we see the confluence of extraordinarily high infrastructure costs (land, construction, equipment, facilities, etc.) and extraordinarily high operating costs (labor, maintenance, fuel, utilities, overhead, etc.) combine with extraordinarily low demand by commuters to produce such little tangible benefit.

And that’s the opening paragraph! Now, if you want to know where rail “might” work, you’ll have to begin by building “linear cities,” which I’m afraid will mean demolishing your old ones….

19 TomB July 8, 2009 at 1:05 pm

I lived in the Houston suburbs for 8 years, and I have lived in DC for the past 6.

Texas is not set up like the coast. For example, Houston is in Harris County, which has an area of 1,778 sq miles. The entire state of Rhode Island is 1,545 sq miles. People and businesses are spread out all over the place. Intracity mass transit is an impractical way to get people around. What’s more, unlike big coastal cities, cabs do not just drive around town in Texas, waiting for people to hail them. People don’t really take cabs. You have to call for them. People don’t even take cabs home from the bars. They just drive, drunk or sober.

As other commenters have noted, no one flies from Houston to Dallas, San Antonio, or Austin. It just doesn’t make sense. It is a 3-5 hour drive, door-to-door. And you need a car once you get to your destination.

Not only that, but Texas is populated by Texans. Texans like their cars, and they especially like their trucks. They do not like public transportation. Who wants to walk a few blocks when 5 months out of the year the temperature is 95+ and humidity is 80%+? I don’t think they are big on changing their ways either. If people are happy driving, they’re going to keep on driving.

20 spencer July 8, 2009 at 1:36 pm

Yes, currently Texas cities are not laid out to facilitate high speed rail and/or public transportation.

But how much of that is because they became cities in an era when our public investment was designed to encourage use of cars and urban sprawl. in general compare cities that became cities before WW II and those that developed since WW II.

If we start shifting the public investment towards more dense settlement and create high speed rail — public transportation — will the development of these cities change and/or adapt so that in another 30 years they will change their settlement/ business patterns in reaction to the existence of high speed rail and the transfer of public investment away from auto friendly transportation.

Think of how much the D.C. pattern of development has changed over the last quarter century because of the existence of the subway system and how much more it would have changed if it did not have such severe restrictions on downtown density.

21 Barrett July 8, 2009 at 2:04 pm

Southern California has the same problem. If you have an efficient light-rail system from southern Orange County to Los Angeles, what to do once you arrive? My suggestion: subsidized bike and Segway rentals. I think the latter is necessary because Southern California is too sprawling to be easily traversed by bike.

22 TomB July 8, 2009 at 2:22 pm

So you do not like the way Texas has laid out its cities? Who cares what you think? Who cares what I think? Texas certainly doesn’t care. You, me, Congress, none of us has any business telling Texas how it should layout its cities. Unless you are Texas resident, in which case it is your business to tell your state government what you want. But it is emphatically not Congress’s place to tell a state how it should layout its cities.

And, you are correct: currently Texas cities are too spread out for public transportation. And DC has changed in response to the subway. Nonetheless, the subway is not very useful in DC. It is useful only if you commute into the city. However, many jobs are not in the city. The consulting and technology firms are in McLean and the Dulles corridor. Biotech out in Maryland. And many companies in DC are not close to the metro, e.g., Fannie May. DC is too spread out for public transportation. 25 years has not changed that. If anything, more businesses and people have moved places inaccessible by public transportation. A car is still a necessity in DC.

As for the 12k people traveling from Houston to Dallas, that assumes that people are not having a layover in the city. Both DFW and IAH are hubs for various airlines. Compare that to DC to NYC. IAD and DCA have 39 flights to JFK each day (same number of return flights). There are more flights to LaGuardia and Newark each day too. And there are all the flights from Baltimore to NYC. Despite all these people traveling, Amtrak still loses money.

23 Charlie July 8, 2009 at 2:49 pm

I’ve lived in Dallas all my life (26 years) and visited all of these cities many times. I would like to point out that there is much demand for traveling between these cities quickly and with little warning. Currently, this demand is met by Southwest Airlines, which has been very successful at attracting business travelers for short trips. For instance, many travelers fly down in the morning and back in the evening.

So to me, the question is not is there demand for arriving at one of these cities without a car, their clearly is. The question is rather does high speed rail compare favorably to Southwest and other carriers (in time and expense), and beyond that, is there a reason that it should be subsidized? That’s beyond what I can answer.

But it is an empirical fact that these plane routes have heavy traffic. Heavy enough to support a high speed rail and what the grounds of a subsidy would be? I don’t know. Also, I’ll note that 95+% of recreational travel is done by car between these routes. Most dispersion arguments explain this phenomenon. Travelers that wish to see many destinations and are more sensitive to expenses do not fly.

24 Right Wing-nut July 8, 2009 at 3:15 pm

Sean: By all means, check out SA! If you hotel is downtown, you should be able to get to downtown SA in less than an hour and a half. They’ve actually got a tourism industry there, not just the capitol.

25 Max July 8, 2009 at 3:32 pm

Nope, it doesn’t pay off, Mr. Cowen. The problem is that first of all US cities are vastly different from European cities, which are on a smaller area. Second, even in Europe rail service is a money hole that gets subsidized enormously. The result is not less congestion on the streets, but actually more congestion. Passenger rail services have led industrial users to use high ways instead of freight trains, which clogs all the interstates in Europe. The second problem a three-lane highway has a higher transportation ratio than a train at any given moment (even with 2 and less passengers per car). Then we have long distance trains, which are expensive to maintain and are not competitive to airplanes in any way.

The major european rail network companies (DB, SNCF and Renfe) all have slight profits, but they also have the subsidizes as a net gain in their books, so it is not even fair. The profit is only a tenth of the subsidies, which means they would be an utter failure, if one would actually look at profitability. Also, trains are smelly, loud and sometimes overcrowded (though more comfy than a flight) if you are not travelling in first class (which is uber-expensive). The only people that regularly use trains are politicians (there is a seperate rail-system between Brussel and Strasbourg, which is EU-politicians only!!!) and business men (because the “rate reduction” cards are paid by the company). Other than that it is mostly the poor who don’t have a car or students that ride the train, which actually is paid for by the majority of car users…

26 Tom July 8, 2009 at 4:00 pm



Except that the bulk of the travel there is by car.

27 dj superflat July 8, 2009 at 4:55 pm

btw, the people explaining that some people would use the hi-speed rail in TX (like business travelers, certain tourists) are ignoring that the question is whether, given that (limited) use, it’s worth making the investment in hi-speed rail.

28 Sean Brown July 8, 2009 at 5:58 pm

One of my favorite bloggers, Chris Bradford of “The Austin Contrarian” blog, has written a lot about this subject (I have lived in Austin since the early 90s and have visited the other three cities multiple times). In his view, the main market would be from people going from CBD to CBD, since the cities’ airports are located (at varying levels of inconvenience) away from the CBD. However, the high cost relative to the size of the target market means that a rail system linking the “Texas 4” is likely not as high in terms of cost-benefit as, say, a San Diego-SF line. Here are some of his relevant posts:





29 Ricardo July 8, 2009 at 9:55 pm

No one flies from Houston to Dallas?! That’s insane. Like I said earlier, there are 61 daily flights each way. At 100 passengers/plane (some are smaller regional jets, but Southwest’s 737s are 150+) that’s 12,200 people daily.

I think this may well seal the argument against high-speed rail in Texas. With 12,000 people flying between Houston and Dallas how many of these can we expect to take the train? If we’re charitable, maybe 8,000 per day. That doesn’t seem nearly enough to justify the huge expense.

The Economist had an article a while ago about how more and more office parks are springing up near airports and mentioned Texas cities in particular. So some of these business travelers who fly may actually have business somewhere near the airport and it would be a huge hassle to arrive downtown on a train and then rent a car and drive way out to the office.

30 Rafe July 9, 2009 at 12:14 am

Former Houston resident.

Currently Southwest offers 42 flights a day on weekdays from Houston to Dallas. That is, in essence, train service.

31 John Dewey July 9, 2009 at 3:15 am

Rafe: “Currently Southwest offers 42 flights a day on weekdays from Houston to Dallas. That is, in essence, train service.”

Well, I can only find 27 nonstop HOU-DAL flights on the Southwest Airlines website, but that’s certainly a lot of choices, isn’t it? In fact, the many choices is the reason Southwest’s HOU-DAL service is NOT, in essence, train service. Southwest’s passengers at HOU can depart every 30 minutes for DAL.

Will high speed rail offer 27 departure times to Dallas for Houston passengers? Of course not. And that’s why it would only capture a very small portion of those 2700-3000 daily Souhwest customers.

32 Erik July 9, 2009 at 8:01 am

@ John Dewey: excellent point. As for this comment:

“Have you guys even visited Texas in any of the months of May through October? Anyone using mass transit would be forced to spend many minutes exposed to the Texas heat and humidity, either walking to and from transit stops or waiting to connect. Few office workers are going to choose that option and arrive at workplaces drenched.”

Welcome to my world! This is every office worker in NYC in July and August! It’s not the heat… it’s the humidity (just kidding… sort of).

@ Anon: “In any case, telepresence will make most business travel unnecessary. This market segment will probably shrink considerably in the next decade or two, and it’s one of the most profitable for transportation companies.”

I have to disagree. I work in the business world and we already have a level of connectivity that would allow me, my staff, and my clients to all work remotely from home. We could do it today. Human interaction is still a necessary component of business. Broadband capacity is not going to change that. And neither is the maturation of Gen Y into the workforce, which I also have a lot of experience with. They are more comfortable with technology, yes, but still require face time. The telepresence argument is a very academic one that I cannot see actually happening in the real world.

33 John Dewey July 9, 2009 at 10:18 am

erik: “The reason Houston is 600 square miles and the bus lines are impractical is because of development decisions that are based on a car culture.”

I agree, Erik.

Do you think that might be true of every American city which developed after Henry Ford made automobiles available to the masses? I think that’s true of European cities as well. From what I’ve read, the parts of metro Paris which tourists do not visit have sprawled in similar fashion to American city sprawl. Consider a few words from an expert on urban topography and demographics:

“The few square miles of central Paris in which the myopic rail-bound pilgrims sit is in the middle of 1,000 square miles of urban sprawl. The situation is similar throughout Western Europe, where virtually all growth in urban areas has been suburban growth, and where virtually all major cities have experienced population losses. Urban population densities have fallen faster in Europe and Canada than in the United States.”

34 Steve Roberts July 9, 2009 at 10:22 am

JMO but inner city public transportation isn’t relevant to the argument of whether train service will work or not. The reality is that we already invest very heavily in airports and a highway system. Generally the public is able to decide whether driving to the next city is worth the time or flying. Adding a third option like train travel would generally just compete with the investments already made. How is that efficient?

And public transportation availability isn’t a relevant as people want to debate in deciding which transportation system you are choosing. It is relevant only at the fringe.

35 RWBoyd July 9, 2009 at 11:45 am

John Dewey: “From what I’ve seen of Houston lately – from what my two brothers living there have shown me – I’m pretty sure that city is de-urbanizing as well.”

Not really. Sprawl continues for sure, and you get clots of offices far from city center. But they do tend to clump together, making their own small centers. The best known areas like this are the Galleria, Greenway, Greenspoint, and the Energy Corridor. But in terms of where people live, just as there is plenty of sprawl development out on the fringes of Houston, there is tons of dense development happening inside the loop. Lots that had one small single-family home are rapidly being turned into sites for three or four townhouses. Huge condo and apartment developments have spring up. I will be curious to see what the next census says, but at present, it looks a lot like certain inner-city zip codes in Houston now have far more people living in them than were living there 10 or 20 years ago. The light-rail construction (happening now) is not so much preceding development (as so much freeway construction does) as following it.

Whether this increased inner-city density means that high-speed inter-city rail is practical, I don’t know. I do find it an expensive and time-consuming hassle to drive to the airport and pay to park. If I choose to park in a commercial satellite lot (to save money), I end up waiting in the heat for a shuttle bus to the airport. If I park right at the airport, I pay through the nose. If I had the option to take the 70 bus downtown and the high-speed train to my destination, I would certainly consider it. It wouldn’t be an automatic decision, but it would be a viable option for me personally.

36 John Dewey July 9, 2009 at 12:18 pm

RWBoyd: “but at present, it looks a lot like certain inner-city zip codes in Houston now have far more people living in them than were living there 10 or 20 years ago.”

I don’t doubt that at all. But I’ll be very surprised if certain other Houston zip codes do not also show declines. As household populations age in inner city and inner suburban zip codes, density will decline. Empty nester and widowed households will likely do as much to reduce Houston density as will the growth of high density housing.

Houston’s density did increase 11% from 1990 to 2000. But, like Dallas, it remains far, far below cities such as Boston, New York, Washington, and San Francisco – cities where intra-city and intercity rail has worked. “Worked” with suibsidies, of course.

One caveat: Houston, Dallas, and the other big Texas cities have seen explosive growth in immigrant populations. It seems unlikely to me that the illegal immigrant population will regularly use high speed rail connecting the Texas cities. So increases in inner city density driven by immigrant population increases need to be discounted in assessing feasibility of high speed rail.

37 RWBoyd July 9, 2009 at 12:48 pm

John Dewey: “I don’t doubt that at all. But I’ll be very surprised if certain other Houston zip codes do not also show declines. As household populations age in inner city and inner suburban zip codes, density will decline. Empty nester and widowed households will likely do as much to reduce Houston density as will the growth of high density housing.”

I’m not sure that populations inside the loop are (on average) aging. Much of the new development is aimed at younger people. So you see the inner-city empty nesters whose property values (and property tax–very high in Houston) selling their lots to developers who build townhouses which are occupied by young single or newly married people. The next thing that happens, though, may be that as they have kids and want a bigger place with a bigger yard and better schools, they move out to the burbs. So that puts into question the long-term viability of all those townhouses and condos–but short term, they have really made many older neighborhoods more dense while attracting younger residents.

“One caveat: Houston, Dallas, and the other big Texas cities have seen explosive growth in immigrant populations. It seems unlikely to me that the illegal immigrant population will regularly use high speed rail connecting the Texas cities. So increases in inner city density driven by immigrant population increases need to be discounted in assessing feasibility of high speed rail.”

In Houston at least, more of the immigrant population has moved to cheaper areas (like southwest Houston or Aldine). Neither of these are inner city locations. Because land in the suburbs is pretty cheap, lots of poorer people end up there. Gentrification of inner-city neighborhoods (those townhouses aren’t cheap!)is also encouraging them to live in more suburban locations. In Houston, it is a mistake to assume “suburban” equals “middle class.”

I mention this because it is really hard to generalize in Houston where “rich,” “middle class,” and “poor” live, and even which parts are densely populated and which parts are not. While I don’t know if you are correct in assuming that no illegal immigrants would use high speed rail, you are certainly correct is suggesting that any assessment of high speed rail’s viability should not be made on inner city density alone.

“Houston’s density did increase 11% from 1990 to 2000. But, like Dallas, it remains far, far below cities such as Boston, New York, Washington, and San Francisco – cities where intra-city and intercity rail has worked. “Worked” with suibsidies, of course.”

Of course, all transportation between cities is subsidized (airports, the FAA, highways, the DPS). So given this, the question is one of cost-benefit. I don’t pretend to have an easy answer for that.

38 mulp July 9, 2009 at 1:03 pm

From what I’ve seen of Houston lately – from what my two brothers living there have shown me – I’m pretty sure that city is de-urbanizing as well.

The pattern appears to be to move future out to avoid the traffic congestion, but because people live all over the region, that just means they are likely to cross more parts of the region to get to work in the outlying area, causing more congestion, cause more sprawl to avoid the traffic congestion which causes more sprawl to avoid the traffic congestion…..

Or is the sprawl merely done to drive up the price of oil to boost the Texas oil economy?

39 M1EK July 9, 2009 at 1:39 pm

Right-wingers just love counterfactuals.

1. Austin voted down light rail once; that was the only election prior to the 2004 commuter rail election, which passed. The 2000 light rail election was forced early to the polls by a state legislator to coincide with W’s national run – and still lost by 1500 votes – passed in the city limits.

2. Both Houston and Dallas have wildly successful light rail lines. Yes, 40,000 per day is wildly successful – and, no, you can’t compare to the amount of people moved by a freeway network that covers thousands of square miles. Unless, of course, your objection is pure ideology.

3. Neither city is ‘de-urbanizing’. Did you just get here from the 1950s, or what? Both cities have strong growth in office buildings and urban residential – Austin actually stronger still on residential development downtown.

40 mulp July 9, 2009 at 2:10 pm

Tyler, how about discussing the wisdom of Boston’s “Big Dig” project, a project that was condemned locally and nationally for its high costs, and that in the end got a lower percentage of Federal funding than most highway transportation projects.

As far as reducing congestion, speeding flow to and from the airport, and increasing the commercial space available for development (office, retail, and residential) inside Boston, the Big Dig has delivered a lot more than expected, although it was never enough.

From the comments here in regard to rail, the Big Dig was the only rational handling of the traffic problem. The people who proposed more public transport and other kinds of things are obviously wrong because roads are be far the better solution and far far cheaper.

But the Big Dig has created a major budget problem which is forcing either a hike in gas taxes state wide or a high in tolls between Boston and for those not from the area, the Logan Airport of about $8 for a three mile ride, or hikes in tolls on the Mass Pike out to New York, or hikes in the sales or income taxes.

(Lots of people talk about the corruption and waste and fraud that results from any government project, but early on the project management and oversight was contracted to [one of] the largest international big infrastructure management firms, Bechtel/Parsons Brinckerhoff, and the state has investigated all the billing on the project for waste and fraud and brought civil and criminal charges against many contractors.)

Incomes are high enough these days in Texas in large part because Texas has invested a lot of public money in things like universities, so Texans pay more in Federal taxes than the Texans see in Federal spending and benefits, just like is the case in Mass, but with the Big Dig, one of the complaints was why should the generally southern states have their pork projects paid for by Texas and Mass taxpayers to fund the Big Dig.

But here I guess, the criticism is that Texas is going to spend money on infrastructure that will exist for at least the next hundred years, if not two hundred years (many critical rail lines were built with Federal money and land over 150 years ago with no sign that they will be abandoned) which with Federal money that Texans pay for in taxes that would otherwise go to other states.

On the other hand, when it came to Alaska, Federal funding to build the Alaska pipeline was justified, along with lots of other Federal funding to support the state. But that pipeline is nearing end of life unless major work is done to refurbish it; the oil companies who benefit from it and control its operation haven’t been pushing to do a lot of maintenance work on it, paid for with higher tariffs, nor have they been willing to build a gas pipeline with their own capital.

I lived for a decade on the National Road, one of the early Federally funded infrastructure projects. Even tho I-70 had been built to offload and speed traffic, two centuries later, National Road is still serving the nation and the region.

How many corporations look at things in terms of centuries of return on investment. What is the appropriate time horizon for evaluating projects like the National Road, the Transcontinental Railroad, the Alaska pipeline, the Big Dig, or high speed rail in Texas?

41 John Dewey July 9, 2009 at 3:45 pm

M1EK: “Wrong, wrong, wrong, wrong, wrong”

That’s a really intelligent argument you make.

42 Doc Merlin July 9, 2009 at 4:15 pm

1) Houston doesn’t just have one city center it has quite a few, its a sort of amoeba that has gobbled up many other cities.
2) The Light rail in Houston is very annoying, it has resulted in Main Street being very clogged up due to the rail line taking up space and lots of accidents between the train and automobiles.
3) Long distance driving is a lot of fun in Texas, I always stop at small towns along the way and get ethnic Czech foods, good barbeque, and other great stuff.
4) It seems the average speed on I-35 is close to 90 mph despite the speed limit being 80 mph, this makes me and my little RX-7 happy.
5) I can carry way more stuff in my tiny sports car than I can on a train and can carry a passenger with almost no loss in fuel efficiency.

43 diz July 10, 2009 at 9:45 am

[i]m1Ek: “Both Houston and Dallas have wildly successful light rail lines. Yes, 40,000 per day is wildly successful – and, no, you can’t compare to the amount of people moved by a freeway network that covers thousands of square miles.”[/i]

When someone describes Houston rail as “wildly successful” one really has to question their sanity.

I was living in Houston at the time they opened it, and I remember the local news pointing out they could have sent a limo to each person who road the train’s house and have it take them door-to-door wherever they wanted to go for far less cost than the train.

Also, there was the small matter of there being dozens of train-automobile accidents downtown in the first few months.

As has been pointed out, the big congestion problems in Texas cities are out in the suburbs, or on the way in from the suburbs.

If you are going to try and fix a problem, better a real one.

44 Oreg July 10, 2009 at 2:11 pm

* A modern high-speed train has a speed of around 190 mph. (A meglev goes up to 310 mph.) For non-stop, direct routes that means (car travel at 80 mph in parentheses, assuming no congestion at all):
– Dallas–Houston, 239 mi, 1:15 (3:00)
– Dallas–Austin or Houston–San Antonio, 196 mi, 1:02 (2:27)
– Houston–Austin, 162 mi, 0:51 (no direct highway, 2:45, according to Google Maps, between city outskirts–quite far from the city center)
– Austin–San Antonio, 80 mi, 0:25 (1:00)
A flight takes between 0:45 and 1:05, plus check-in, security, gate, taxiing to and from the runway.

* Existing high-speed trains typically run every half hour between big cities.

* Most roads and airports are built with public money. Road taxes and airport fees cover only a fraction of the actual costs. There is no fuel tax on kerosene.

* The external costs–payed for by society rather than the individual traveler–are significantly higher for cars (congestion, frequent accidents, pollution) and planes (pollution) than for trains.

* A train is about five times as CO2-efficient as a plane or a car.

* Traffic infrastructure is the definition of a system with network effects–they are massive. You cannot expect all the payoff from an initial investment.

45 agm July 11, 2009 at 11:42 am

Oreg, you are incorrect. US290 is the direct highway between Houston and Austin. Often cited as the busiest highway in Texas too.

46 John Dewey July 13, 2009 at 9:30 am

Dan H: “Jet-A fuel is taxed at 21.8 cents per gallon.”

oreg: “Commercial flights are exempt from this tax.”

I don’t think that’s exactly corect, Oreg. Jet fuel for commercial jets is taxed at 4.3 cents per gallon. Commercial jets use much, much more jet fuel than do private jets. Even at the lower rate, commerical jet owners are still paying the overwhelming majority of aviation fuel taxes.

Of course, federal jet fuel taxes are just a drop in the bucket of the taxes paid by airlines and passed on to their customers. Other taxes paid directly or indirectly by airline passengers include:

passenger ticket tax – 7.5% of fare

passenger segment tax – $3.60 for every flight segment flown

passenger facility charges – up to $4.50 per passenger for each airport used in a trip

TSA funding tax – $2.50 per one way trip

EPA tax for discovery and cleanup of leaking aviation fuel – 1 cent per jet fuel gallon

state and local aviation fuel taxes – varies greatly (Utah – 4 cents/gal; Illinois – 9% plus 5 cents/gal)

oreg: “The four city’s airports were built by the cities–with public money–and they still run them.”

Airports in Texas and just about everywhere else are constructed using bonds. Investors purchase the bonds, and then are repaid through taxes levied on airlines, on passengers, and on commercial interests at the airports. If you wish to call that “public money”, that’s fine. But the airports are ultimately paid by the passengers.

47 John Dewey July 13, 2009 at 12:53 pm

oreg: “”But the airports are ultimately paid by the passengers.”

Far from true.”

Prove that. Please provide any research that shows Texas airports are not paid for by users.

Here’s the statement about funding from Austin’s Bergstrom International Airport:

Funded by airport users, not Austin taxpayers.

Early in the project, City of Austin officials pledged that no tax dollars would be used to build Austin Bergstrom International Airport. Even though the City of Austin owns the facility, the project used no local property tax dollars. The entire ongoing budget is paid by the people and businesses that use the airport.

48 Oreg July 13, 2009 at 3:55 pm

John, according to the US Government Accountability Office 49.6% of US airport developments are funded through bonds, 5.6% through state grants, and the rest by the users, either directly (passenger facility charges, 16.8%) or indirectly (federal AIP grants, 27.9%).

In summary, the subsidies for air traffic we’ve collected so far are:
* State grants, rather small, maybe zero for some airports and more for others.
* Cheap funding through public bonds with government credit rating and tax-free interest payments.
* The huge fuel tax exemptions.

What’s the point of this discussion again? Large infrastructure projects such as roads and airports are mostly undertaken by the public, so it is only fair to assume the same model for trains. That’s all.

What are the arguments against HSR in Texas again?

49 Dan H. July 14, 2009 at 1:05 am


Since the other question has been answered (Airports are mostly funded by their users, and not by the taxpayer), I’ll answer your question about train efficiency.

Gasoline has 19.56 pounds of CO2 per gallon. If your car gets 20mpg (the number the DOT uses as the fleet average for passenger cars), you’re releasing .96 lbs of CO2 per mile driven.

In 2002, over a studied distance of 16,670 miles, an Amtrak train released 3,182 kg of CO2, which worked out to be .42 lbs per passenger mile. (commuter rail is a little better, at .35 lbs per passenger mile).

Do you really want to lock your instrastructure into this mode of transportation? Cars are getting more efficient all the time. If a car gets 40 mpg (say, something like a Honda Fit), you’re emitting only slightly more CO2 to get to your destination than Amtrak passengers are. But cars on average have 1.4 people in them, so the fleet today averages about .68 lbs of CO2 per passenger mile. With the new CAFE standard of 35 mpg, the car fleet will be averaging .39 lbs of CO2 per passenger mile – less than Amtrak, slightly more than commuter trains. If you’re driving with two people, or you’re driving a car that gets better than 45 mpg, you will be emitting less CO2 driving your car than you would be as a passenger on Amtrak.

Pretty surprising, isn’t it? Trains actually use quite a bit of energy, because they weigh far more per passenger than do cars, and their passenger compartments have a lot of volume per passenger than has to be heated or cooled. They generally also run partially empty, and have to carry the weight of support personnel, utensils, reefer cars, sleepers, etc. They’re not as energy efficient as most people think.

Now, there are lots of caveats here. For one thing, the train’s numbers would be calculated based on average load factors. If you can pass laws to cram everyone into trains, you could probably bump the efficiency by 20% or so. But that’s still not gaining you much. Also, I don’t know what the fuel efficiency of the newer HSR designs are, but traveling at high speed takes lots of energy.

In any event, if you spend the tens or hundreds of billions of dollars to create an HSR corridor, you can bet that it will be in operation for decades. It seems to be very likely that, with the improvements we see constantly in auto efficiency, trains could become the least environmentally friendly way to travel in a decade or two. You’re putting all your eggs in a very flimsy basket.

50 John Dewey July 14, 2009 at 12:19 pm

oreg: “Even a revenue bond is considered very secure because of assumed state backing beyond contractual obligations.”

That is not true of the nonrecourse revenue bonds which funded Austin and DFW airports. I’m not familiar with the funding for Houston, but my guess is those were also nonrecourse bonds.

Investors are willing to purchase, at low rates of return, nonrecourse revenue bonds for airports for a simple reason: they are extremely confident of the revenue stream.

If investors had confidence in the revenue stream for high speed rail, Texas and California could sell nonrecourse revenue bonds to fund HSR. But investors are too smart for that.

51 Daniel July 15, 2009 at 11:34 am

@ sean, I live in San Antonio, a couple of miles from downtown, and I don’t understand the comment about not camping out in the city center. I wish that wasn’t a question for another day, but I’ll go ahead and take it on today. San Antonio probably has the most attractive and walkable downtown of all Texas cities. You could easily get by without a car, though of course most people don’t. There are a lot of good as well as middling restaurants downtown, for all appetites and budgets. Not sure the purpose of your visit, but the things tourists come to see are all downtown — the River Walk, the Alamo, La Villita, etc.; Fiesta. And what’s more, San Antonio has a very good bus system, which converges on downtown. The attractions and good restaurants that are not downtown are mostly on Broadway or McCullogh, easily accessible by the number 9 (or 10, to Austin Highway; the McNay is at Austin Hwy and New Braunfels) and 5, respectively — which is not to slight Stone Oak, the shiny, happy, moneyed, spanking new exurbs outside the outermost loop, but most of those seem to be chains, albeit good ones; but regardless, not sure why you would want to camp out there instead of downtown, and I can’t think of any other contenders.

52 Don September 1, 2009 at 11:43 pm

I have spent my entire 29 year career living in Houston and travel frequently to Dallas, San Antonio and Austin as well as other parts of the country. I usually prefer to drive when traveling to the other major Texas cities rather than fly. Since coming to Houston, the city has roughly doubled in size as have these other major Texas cities. Many other regions of the country have had stagnant employment and population growth with aging infrastructure during this period of time. With a diverse economy, low cost of living, and favorable business climate, these cities will have 20-30 million people in the coming decades. In a global economy, Texas is leading the nation in international trade and is likely to continue to be one of the leading areas of growth in the country. Part of what makes these cities great is a combination of entrepreneurial spirit and long range planning and investment in infrastructure. All of these cities are experiencing redevelopment and expansion of their inner cities as well as suburban growth. These metropolitan areas need planned expansion of infrastructure including highways, toll roads, light rail, high speed rail, freight rail, airports, and ports. Without developing this infrastructure, the highways in Texas will look like the 405 in LA in 10 to 20 years.

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