America’s first bullet train is already a failure and it hasn’t even been built

America’s first bullet train is already a failure and it hasn’t even been built
© Greg Nash

 As we mark three-years since the unveiling of one of the most ambitious high-speed rail projects currently proposed in America, Texas Central Partner’s bullet train, its becoming clear that many of the assertions made about the project are way off track. 

The 240-mile line promises to whisk riders from Houston to Dallas in less than 90 minutes with convenient departures every 30 minutes to an hour for a price comparable to that of a plane ticket. Backers of the project assert that all funding will come from the private sector and that rider demand will be sufficient to sustain operations without any taxpayer support. They point to a list of “infrastructure priorities” as proof that there is broad support for high-speed rail in Texas and that the Lone Star State is a prime location to introduce the first line in the country.

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In reality, these claims do not hold up under scrutiny, and the project appears to quickly be going off the rails.

 

For starters, taxpayers may be on the hook for a public funding component. Texas Central Partner has indicated that they plan to apply for Railroad Rehabilitation and Investment Financing (RRIF) loans, a federally funded taxpayer subsidy. Should the project, like many federally backed projects have before it, go under (think Solyndra) taxpayers would ultimately be left holding the bag for the entire value of the loans. 

Despite Texas Central Partner’s promise that they have no plans to take state money the Texas Legislature took the extraordinary step this last session of codifying that promise and passing Senate Bill 977. The law, signed by Gov. Abbott this past May, stipulates that “the legislature may not appropriate money to pay for a cost of planning, facility construction or maintenance, or security for, promotion of, or operation of” the railway. The fact of the matter is the Texas’s elected officials have more pressing issues at present, and they want to make sure they are not tethered to a failing high-speed rail project in the future. 

Investors are probably starting to feel the same way and the few that have provided the 1 percent of capital raised to date may soon be looking to cut ties. Delays surrounding the environmental impact study have already put the project years behind schedule. Proposed construction costs have ballooned from $10 billion to $16 billion and the project is yet to break ground. 

Overly optimistic ridership estimates also call into question the long-term viability of the project, should it ever secure the necessary funding to complete construction. Estimates from Texas Central Partner predict a ridership of 5 million annually by 2025 (up from earlier estimates of 4 million annual riders by 2035) and a whopping 10 million riders by 2050. 

By comparison, Amtrak’s higher speed rail offering the Acela, carried 3.5 million passengers in 2014. This despite the fact that it runs through the most densely populated rail corridor in America and in what many economists consider the only economically viable region for bullet train style high-speed rail in the United States.

Furthermore, Texas Central Partner’s own numbers estimate that 14 million people currently travel between Houston and Dallas annually by airline, automobile or bus. Assuming that passenger traffic between the two cities remains relatively constant for the next few years, that would mean that 36 percent of all trips between Houston and Dallas would have to be by high-speed rail to achieve 5 million riders annually by 2025. By contrast, the Acela carried 2 percent of total passenger traffic in the Boston-Washington, D.C. corridor in 2010.

In short, the numbers just don’t add up. Absent stratospheric demand for ridership, it appears that the Houston-Dallas high-speed rail project would race towards bankruptcy faster than a speeding bullet train. Private sector money tends to support ventures that have a viable path towards profitability. When the proposed passenger utilization rates inevitably do not materialize, federal subsidies will become a necessity. 

This nexus between the Texas high-speed rail project and the federal government has been one of the greatest points of confusion. A surprise appearance in a list of “Emergency & National Security Projects” reportedly compiled by the National Governors Association and representatives from the Trump transition team in early 2017, made it appear that the project had received the blessing of the incoming administration. 

However, as Westworld magazine reports, the origins of the list are hazy and “a couple of notable errors…raise questions about whether those who penned the document…are actually up to speed” regarding the projects included in the report. Subsequent official statements from the White House on infrastructure priorities have failed to include the project, raising doubt on the level of Trump administration interest. 

On paper, Texas' high-speed rail seems like a pretty good deal. A next-generation transit project funded entirely by the private sector. Upon closer inspection it has become apparent that this project should be stopped dead in its tracks. Taxpayers should steer clear or risk getting railroaded into paying for this boondoggle.

Travis Korson is a senior fellow with Frontiers of Freedom a public policy think tank devoted to promoting a strong national defense, free markets, individual liberty, and constitutionally-limited government. To learn more about Frontiers of Freedom, visit www.ff.org.