Amtrak and Texas railroad company Texas Central announced Wednesday they’re eying a partnership to breathe life into a long-stalled and controversial bullet train between Houston and Dallas.
“If we are going to add more high-speed rail to this country, the Dallas to Houston corridor is a compelling proposition and offers great potential,” Amtrak Senior Vice President of High-Speed Rail Development Programs Andy Byford said in a press release.
“We are proud to bring our experience to evaluate this potential project and explore opportunities with Texas Central so the state can meet its full transportation needs.”
The companies have submitted joint applications to federal agencies for “several federal programs in connection with further study and design work.”
Applications include the Corridor Identification and Development program and the Federal-State Partnership for Intercity Passenger Rail grant program.
Details of the proposed partnership remain scarce and skeptics say the cost remains too high a hurdle to overcome even if the train wins federal support.
With speeds up to 205 miles-per-hour, the train promises a 90-minute trip between the Lone Star State’s two largest cities using Japanese Shinkansen technology.
When Texas Central first pitched the plan in 2012, the price tag came in at $10 billion, which the company pledged would be entirely privately funded. Estimates have since ballooned to at least $33 billion and the company acknowledged it would seek public support, including a possible $12 billion federal Railroad Rehabilitation and Improvement Financing program loan.
The company’s status has been in flux since last year when CEO Carlos Aguilar left and the board disbanded. Also last year the company won crucial support from a Texas Supreme Court ruling that it had the power of eminent domain.
The project remains one of a handful of high-speed rail projects under development in the U.S. The high-speed rail industry is hoping to tap some of the limited federal funding under the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law into at least seven projects.
The company’s apparent “zombie” status coupled with rising costs and inaction in acquiring land or permits make the project a long shot even with the latest announcement, said Baruch Feigenbaum, Senior Managing Director Transportation Policy at Reason Foundation, who wrote a March update on the project.
“It’s an uphill battle,” Feigenbaum said, adding that the new announcement may be an attempt to attract more private investment.
“Texas Central hasn’t lined up much in funding,” he said. “Amtrak has funding but I don’t know if they’re going to use those federal grants on this line; they might use it on their more heavily traveled lines in the Northeast and Midwest.”
The apparent pivot to public funding shows the difficulties in financing complicated high-speed development, said Joseph Krist, publisher of Muni Credit News, in the Aug. 10 newsletter.
“It is fashionable to believe that the private sector would be the key to the development of high-speed rail,” Krist said, adding that private financing has been used as a selling point for some of the projects. “The latest example of a private project transitioning to one supported by governmental financing is the Texas Central project,” he said. “The move to look for public funding is the first major strategy change to come from the new board. There remain significant issues over right of way acquisition and funding.”
Several cities support the project, including Dallas, Houston, Fort Worth and the Harris County Metropolitan Transit Authority.
The mayors of Dallas and Houston cheered Wednesday’s announcement.
“The collaboration between Texas Central and Amtrak is an important milestone for the City of Houston and this project,” said Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner, and Dallas Mayor Eric L. Johnson said the project would “revolutionize transportation in our region.”
Opponents in the Texas Legislature, driven largely by resistance to the land acquisition plans, floated bills this session that would have stymied the project but the measures failed to gain traction.
On the federal front, Republican Rep. Jake Ellzey called the project a “private company’s boondoggle.”
“We are a long way from Congress and the Federal Government authorizing the supposed deal between Amtrak and Texas Central to use eminent domain to take Texans’ property,” Ellzey said in a joint press release with state Rep. Cody Harris.