Sunday, July 06, 2008

“We’re out of the station. We’re quickly picking up momentum.”

High speed rail plan put to sniff test

July 6, 2006

by Paul A. Romer
Temple Daily Telegram
Copyright 2008

BELTON - The best way to describe a meeting between high speed rail proponents and Bell County commissioners last week may be to compare them to two dogs that approach each other, sniff around for a while and then choose to go in different directions.

Officials from both organizations used careful language after the Monday meeting to describe exactly what occurred but their words were measured, possibly to preserve political relationships for future considerations.

It may be more beneficial to the people of Bell County to know what didn’t occur.

The Texas High Speed Rail and Transportation Corp. would like Bell County to become a dues paying member of the corporation, which is taking its message all around the state that now is the time for high speed rail in Texas. But an invitation for Bell County to come aboard for the ride was not extended.

Maybe it was the tepid response from commissioners that curtailed the invitation, but paperwork describing the benefits of such membership was contained in packets of information distributed to commissioners before the meeting.

Two Bell County cities, Killeen and Temple, are already spending taxpayer money to support the rail corporation’s efforts in bringing high speed rail, dubbed the Texas T-Bone Corridor, to the state. Each city pays annual membership dues of $25,000.

The rail corporation is proposing that two high speed rail lines be built: one from the Dallas-Fort Worth area to San Antonio and the other from Houston to Fort Hood. The lines would cross in the Temple area.

This fiscal year the rail corporation will bring in $210,000 in membership dues, according to officials. At this point the dues appear to be used almost exclusively to promote the idea.

“We are working to plan this,” Bill Jones III, Temple mayor and corporation vice chairman, said to commissioners. “We don’t have all the answers. We’re doing nothing but raising dues that support us to get the word out right now.”

None of the Bell County commissioners spoke in favor of the proposal. Each had questions that when considered together helped show the high speed rail project for what it is: a speculative proposal that is in its infancy.

Eddy Lange, commissioner in Precinct 3, spoke with the most passion against high speed rail.

“The timing could not be worse coming right off the tail of the Trans-Texas Corridor,” he said. “I’m open (to new ideas) but right now I’m not coming out in support of this. It would be political suicide for any of us.”

Lange said he felt sure his constituents in eastern Bell County would be against selling their land so that rail infrastructure could be built. He said his constituents would even be against an above ground rail that would help preserve farmland.

In its promotional materials the rail corporation identifies more than 20 congressional and legislative supporters - including U.S. Rep. John Carter - but it is unclear the level of support of these state and national leaders.

Some have written letters supporting the concept of high speed rail, encouraging the rail corporation to combine private and public resources to see if it has potential to benefit Texas. Others believe high speed rail is coming and want it in their state or district first.

Tim Brown, commissioner for Precinct 2, said the transportation model in Texas is very different from the model where similar trains are operating in Asia and Europe. The population in Texas is more spread out than other regions using high speed rail.

And Brown doesn’t believe the train would make a substantial impact on highway traffic. He said it would compete more directly with small airports.

“This could put our small airports out of business,” said Richard Cortese, commissioner for Precinct 1.

Brown said it is time that the corporation move past concepts and start compiling data to see if such a project is even feasible.

“I understand the concepts; I’d like to see the numbers,” he said. “We need to know if it can work. Right now there is a line on the map drawn up by the people who have given money.”

County Judge Jon Burrows intimated that the county would like to be involved early on with a venture that would relieve future highway congestion and provide more transportation options to residents but at this point he doubts that the organization would have the political clout to bring the T of the T-Bone through Bell County. He said a more logical route might be from Houston to Austin.

“My concern is the political realities,” Burrows said. “If this thing gets close to happening, Austin and San Antonio may come forward with fistfuls of money and Bell County could be left out.”

Comments made by John Fisher, commissioner for Precinct 4, seemed to support Burrow’s position. Fisher asked the group who they had spoken to at Fort Hood. He said he has not talked to a single official from the base who said high speed rail was an option for the Army moving its freight.

Jones said the rail line may prove most useful to families and soldiers traveling to and from Fort Hood.

The annual meeting of the rail corporation is scheduled for Aug. 13 in Irving. The meeting will include a year-end review, overview of fact-finding missions to areas with high speed rail and legislative planning for 2009.

The corporation has a goal of bringing high speed rail to the state by 2020, which critics say may not be possible.

Brown estimates that it would take 10 years to do an environmental analysis of the area where the track would run and another 10 years to build it.

To accomplish its objectives the rail corporation would have to move at a pace much faster than what government is generally accustomed to. Jones says the project can meet its objectives if the public and private sector work together.

“We’re out of the station. We’re quickly picking up momentum,” he said.

© 2008, Temple Daily Telegram:

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