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Saturday, October 22, 2016

In Texas, a private company wants to build a bullet train joining Dallas and Houston. In California, the state is raising its own billions to create a very fast ride between Los Angeles and San Francisco.

Two very different ways to fund high-speed rail, but they have one thing in common. They bypass the thousand-car pileup that is Washington politics.

Perhaps it’s time for fans of high-speed rail to let some air into their thought box. Perhaps they should stop looking to Washington for direction and money. There are several routes to this destination, and who cares which ideology drives the train?

The drawbacks in counting on federal help for this undertaking are several. One is that most Republicans in Congress remain philosophically opposed to writing checks for such infrastructure. Another snag has been the Obama administration’s failure to smartly guide the $11 billion already committed to the cause since 2009.

That money has reportedly been spent hither and yon, not focused on those densely populated regions where high-speed rail makes the most sense. In the Northeast corridor — where super-expensive Acela trains sell out, despite not being super-fast — scant high-speed money has arrived.

California governor Jerry Brown is now thinking, “The heck with Washington.” He says that obtaining additional money to build the rail line is “well within the capability of the state of California.”

Yes, it can. In June, the Democratic Legislature agreed to fund the project out of the cap-and-trade program (for curbing carbon emissions). And in other good news, an appellate court recently overturned an earlier, lower court ruling forbidding California to sell $9 billion worth of state bonds for the project.

The main obstacle driving Brown away from a larger federal role has been a homegrown congressman — the new Republican majority leader, Kevin McCarthy of Bakersfield. McCarthy has made it his sacred mission to block any more federal money for the California project.

“Republicans under Mr. McCarthy,” Brown said dismissively, “have decided that it’s better to treat high-speed rail as a political football than as a great civic opportunity.”

Brown continues to push the rail plan — and in the face of rising costs, raining lawsuits and tiring public opinion. Good for him. That’s the nature of doing big things. The Golden Gate Bridge was not built without pain.

In Texas, a company called Texas Central Railway envisions high-speed trains flying at over 200 mph between Houston and Dallas. We’re talking a 240-mile trip in less than 90 minutes. (The mostly flat landscape should help.) Lines could be extended to San Antonio and Austin in the future.

And — music to the ears of most Texans — the project is not being subsidized by either the state or the feds.

“We are a private company, employing a market-led approach,” Texas Central’s website says, employing all the right words. “Unlike other high-speed rail projects, we are not backed by public funds or your taxpayer dollars.”

The project would have major Japanese input in both investors and technology. Japan does know all about high-speed rail. And it can’t be coincidental that the company’s senior advisor, Tom Schieffer, is a former U.S. ambassador to Japan.

The shared virtue of both the Texas and the California approaches is that the backers don’t have to cut deals with powerful congressmen from sparsely populated districts, places not suitable for high-speed rail. Nor must they court Washington politicians hostile to public transportation.

Would a transcontinental high-speed rail system be a neat thing? Sure. But that’s not going to happen now. These two projects — despite the major difference in their style of funding — could be a start.

Is this any way to run a railroad? Yes and yes.

Follow Froma Harrop on Twitter @FromaHarrop. She can be reached at [email protected] To find out more about Froma Harrop and read features by other Creators writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Web page at

Photo: loudtiger via Flickr

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  • Dominick Vila

    The efforts being made at state level to build high speed trains is very refreshing, and a step in the right direction. The fact that we have fallen behind Japan and Western Europe in the construction of bullet trains and high speed lines to lessen our dependence on cars and fossil fuels is like a dream come true.
    If done properly, it will also open new markets for our businessmen and opportunities for workers in this field. The time to show the world that we can compete and that we can sell a lot more than weapons of mass destruction is now.

    • TZToronto

      At the rate the US (and Canada) is going in terms of technology, China will be colonizing Mars before North America gets a bullet train system. If you want to do big things, you have to think big. Congress thinks small–How will my constituents feel about me if I vote for/against this bill? That doesn’t lead to accomplishments, only to narrow-minded, self-serving re-election/defeat. It’s time to stop thinking about getting that perpetual job in the civil service and start thinking about making America the great country it’s supposed to be. America can’t be great if the only world-beating technology it has is confined to weapons.

      • Independent1

        Unfortunately, I don’t think it’s so much “How will my constituents feel about me if I vote for/against t his bill?” I think it’s more, what will the Koch Bros, or the Tea Party leaders think about me if I vote for/against this bill. Remember, it’s all about primaries these days, what a legislator’s constituents think is at least 3rd or maybe 4th in the scheme of things; it usually begins with: What will Grover Nordquist think? What will the Koch Bros or Tea Bagger Leaders think? What will the GOP leadership think? And then maybe, what will my constituents think. The GOP sure knows about adding bureaucracy to the scheme of governing; which is one reason they’re so bad at it (governing).

        • TZToronto

          Good points all! On the other hand, Grover has only one vote, and the Koch brothers have a total of two. They are, however, considerably more influential when they try to manipulate the votes of others by lying to and misleading them and encouraging state legislators to deny the franchise to whole groups of legitimate voters. Their Tea Party constituents are the backbone of the candidates’ election/re-election efforts. So while the “other” people you mention are definitely the movers and shakers of the far, far right movement, they still have to convince the real voters that they, the candidates (and by extension Grover and the Koch Bros.) are worthy of their votes.

          • Independent1

            I see your point, but what galls me is that if a piece of legislation adds even $1 to the taxes of the 1%, legislators don’t even care what the Koch Bros or their constituents care about the legislation – they have to vote against it to keep their pledge to Grover.

            And since they can’t even run to get re-elected unless they win the next primary, if it’s a piece of legislation that doesn’t include a tax increase, all they care about is whether or not the Koch Bros would like it, because if not, the Koch Bros have enough money to spend to prevent them from even winning the next primary, so even if it would be a big boon to them and their constituents, they have to vote against it if they hope to win the next primary.

            Despite the fact that these first two obstructionists only have 3 votes – they’re the most crucial votes in the life of a Republican politician; these 3 votes flat out trump whatever a million voters may think. And don’t forget, if the Koch Bros who back Grover can spend enough money in TV ads to sway the minds of voters during a primary, they also can often sway the minds of non Republican voters even during a general election.

          • TZToronto

            Again, excellent points! Those politicians who made a pledge to Grover that overrides their commitment to the Constitution should be driven from Congress. They are not serving the people they represent and will do anything the bring down the government they are a part of. They are traitors.

          • Independent1

            What I forgot to note at the end of my last post is, that it’s the fact that 3 votes from, in mind, outright hoodlum types, which actually trump what a million or more voters may want, is what has convinced me that the GOP is no longer a true political party; in essence, the GOP is no different than the Italian Mafia.

            The only difference between the GOP (the American Mafia) and the Italian Mafia, is that GOP hoods are pretending to be politicians as they go about enacting every piece of legislation they can to rip off the American taxpayer. By posing as politicians, the American Mafia is systematically stealing money hand over fist from American citizens without having to run what people would consider crooked schemes like gambling, protection rackets, drugs, etc. By posing as politicians the GOP is making their thievery legal.

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  • Bill Thompson

    For those that can remember back that far Jimmy Carter was a big proponent of high-speed rails there were steps underway at the end of his administration. Ronald Reagan came in to Office and dismantled everything that is what place at the time. The Japanese with no competition took the ball and ran with it. While I do applaud the two approaches to bettering the infrastructure in both states, make no mistake all of the equipment will be purchased from Japan and more than likely utilize Japanese companies that are already adept at installing the technology.
    What the public needs to realize is federal or state expenditures in infrastructure create huge returns on the dollars invested. Not only in the construction phase of the project but also in the advantages to the public as a whole.
    In the end it is more likely that the state will be involved in both projects, public rail systems never make profit and always need federal or state subsidies.

    • Dominick Vila

      I agree. The only clarification I can add is that Japan is not the only country building and selling bullet trains. I read an article recently about Spain selling and building a bullet train between Riyadh and Mecca that includes, among other things, a Royal car for the King of Saudi Arabia. France, Germany and other West European countries are also at the vanguard of this industry, as well as alternative energy sources such as Solar and Wind power.
      The indifference we have demonstrated during the past several decades, and the ability of the fossil and car industries to convince us that the way to go is the status quo, is now hurting our ability to compete with other industrialized nations on just about everything but weapons, cereals, and lumber exports. On the high tech front, we simply hand our inventions to countries like China, so that they can mass produce what we invent for a fraction of what it would cost in the USA. We better wake up soon and smell the roses before it is too late.

      • sleepvark

        Japan is not the only asian contender for high speed rail here in the US. I have met a number of Chinese RR engineers/builders touring around here in an effort to help us along into the modern world. Talk about historical irony. But go look at China’s high speed system. First rate engineering and architechture, 200 mph (300 km/hr) trains being the commonplace norm, and newer 300 mph mag lev trains getting thousands of km of new routes every few years. These modern trains are mostly elevated so that there are no grade crossings. And cheap to ride too.
        China is rapidly becoming the finest example of a first world country, while the US is sinking into third world status.

        • Dominick Vila

          Let’s face it, China is a communist country in name only. Judging by the way the embrace industrial and infrastructure development, their trade practices, and the way they adopt capitalist economic strategies, they are well on their way to become the next economic super power. Add their work ethics to the mix and their ability to control the global economy within the next few decades is a lot more than just a probability.
          We still have a way to go before we become a Third World country, but I get your point, from an industrial perspective, we have been in decline since at least the 1970s, and we have nobody to blame but ourselves. We still have time – and the resources needed to turn things around. Unfortunately, we spend more time blaming the boogeyman for the things that afflict us, than focusing on what needs to be done to remain the dominant global super power.

        • S.J. Jolly

          It doesn’t hurt Chinese construction plans that they can finance them by selling us multi-billions of dollars of consumer goods. (IOW, swapping the savages trinkets for land and minerals).

          • sleepvark

            Nice analogy, with historical overtones! Love it.

          • Independent1

            What a lot of folks don’t realize is that America owns about 1 trillion in China bonds that they sold us decades ago (just a little less than what they own of our government’s securities); it’s almost a break even situation.

        • Magnus Thunderson

          yep high speed rail is so sweet but to make it even sweeter is to auto train the long distant runs such as North east to Florida.
          Florida to southern California then
          southern California to north then loop it back to the northeast

        • mah101

          I’ve ridden China Rail many times across China and their rail system is first rate. Its often embarrassing upon returning to the US from China and encountering our crumbling roads and poor public transit.

    • Magnus Thunderson

      we spent more on building and maintaining roads then building High-speed rail system and running it for 50 years
      thought air lines will suffer if it ever happens here but we can only hope we start looking at the long term.

      • Independent1

        And it’s not too long before the airline and dying fossil fuel generated auto industry will be the major customers of the petroleum industry as solar, wind and plasma energy generation replaces fossil fuel powered electricity plants.

        Many European countries are already getting 50% of their electric energy from solar and wind with Germany, the planet’s most productive industrial country on a per capita basis, generating over 75% of their electric energy from wind and solar. Germany has some wind generators that power over 7,000 homes each.

        • sleepvark

          Having lived in Germany for a number of years, it amazes me that they can get any solar power at all, given the amount of cloud cover they suffer on a typical day. They really are geniuses over there, and I salute them and their technical savvy!

          • Independent1

            I agree and I’m a little surprised too! My wife and I lived in Germany for 3 years back in the early 1960s when I was in the Air Force. Our 2nd oldest daughter was born in Bavaria.

  • mah101

    Unfortunately, in the densely populated areas in the east and midwest, multiple states would be involved. My commute, for example, involves three states. The state-funded approach will encounter difficulty in coordinating multiple state policies. Private funding may work, but it sure would be nice if our taxpayer dollars could be used for building up our infrastructure.

    • Independent1

      I think that could be changed if we set up public high-speed rail in the way that some countries have. I believe it’s in either Japan or China where they’ve set up the trains with separate seating arrangemens for business vs pleasure riders. Business passengers pay a little more but they get special seating that’s more like a work station with internet connecticity, so they can actually begin work when they board the train.

      Some business people travel 200 miles one way to work each day which is about an hour commute, which means that people could live in Connecticut for example and work in DC; these business people are actually able to get credit for being at work while their commuting and the cost of the train is far cheaper than if they chose to drive. It’s my sense that if high speed trains were set up right, people would almost be forced to drastically cut back on their use of their car for purely economic reasons. We have friends in one of the European countries who commutes to work via train about 50 miles a day and the cost is only equivalent to a few dollars each way. Far cheaper than it would be to drive; not to mention the advantage to catch up on your reading or work will your commuting.

    • Independent1

      One thing I forgot to note, is that those promoting high-speed trains need to also focus on the environmental side of high-speed trains.
      As some have pointed out, high-speed trains are normally elevated and thereby create far less pollution for the lands they travel over. In addition, high speed trains are usually powered by electricity which many European countries are getting with virtually no, or very little pollution from the sun and wind. And if high speed trains were used more, they would be taking millions of cars off the road, reducing even more the carbon pollution created by automobiles. Moving to high-speed trains would not only be a win situation for Americans, it would also be a win for our planet.