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LA-Vegas high-speed rail paves the way for ambitious transportation projects

Other proposed projects include connecting San Francisco to Los Angeles, Houston to Dallas, and creating a link between Portland, Seattle, Vancouver and British Columbia.
 A Brightline train is shown at a station in Fort Lauderdale, Florida.
Posted at 4:43 AM, Apr 29, 2024

Developers have already broken ground on a high-speed rail line to connect Los Angeles and Las Vegas. It's the latest in big rail projects being realized around the country.

In Texas, Amtrak says it will take the lead in trying to connect the nation's fourth- and fifth-largest cities — Houston and Dallas-Fort Worth — via high-speed rail. But the idea first needs to get state and local politicians on board before it steams down the track.

Speaking at a regional rail conference earlier in April, Amtrak's senior vice president for high-speed rail development, Andy Byford, said Texans will be stuck widening highways and expanding airports if they don't consider rail.

In the Lone Star State, the majority of travelers make the 225-mile slog between Houston and Dallas by road or air.

Byford says high-speed rail can make the same trip a 90-minute experience from point to point. The appeal is when the big metroplexes expand local transportation to offer a door-to-door commute to eschew cars. "If you don't do something, you're going to be upgrading those roads, and you're going to have to keep widening," Byford said at the Southwestern Rail Conference in Hurst, Texas, on April 16.

Railroad fans dubbed Andy Byford "Train Daddy" after he was tasked with improving an antiquated New York City subway system from 2018 to 2020. His next challenge is modernizing U.S. rail systems and bringing higher-speed rail travel to the tracks.

"Surely now is the time to look at, there is an alternative, it is a proven alternative," Byford said.

The site of a proposed station for a high-speed rail line to Las Vegas is shown.

Infrastructure

High-speed rail line between Las Vegas, Los Angeles area breaks ground

AP via Scripps News
2:02 PM, Apr 22, 2024

He added, "This is very much a project that Amtrak is now leading." A high-speed connector between the state's biggest cities had been dubbed Texas Central and was conceived more than a decade ago, but politics and various other factors stalled the idea from moving forward. Byford told people at the conference that Amtrak has a grant to study proposals to put something akin to a Japanese-style bullet train back on track in Texas.

For decades, successful bullet train systems going as fast as 200 miles an hour have zipped passengers across France and Japan. Rail projects are happening across the U.S. Florida has a new passenger rail connecting Miami and Orlando.

Recently, in Nevada, U.S. Secretary of Transportation Pete Buttigieg helped break ground on a new $12.5 billion high-speed rail line between Sin City and the City of Angels, slated for completion in 2028.

"Candidly, I have never heard a stretch of interstate described as a parking lot more often than the I-15 corridor," Buttigieg said at the event.

And the timing may be right for Texas, one of the fastest-growing states in the country.

"Connecting these two big metros — you know, how do you do it, and how do you take full advantage of it?" said Bruce Race, an expert in low-carbon cities and urban design at the Hines College of Architecture and Design at the University of Houston.

He said the answer is to take careful consideration in making sure every mile of a potential high-speed rail passenger's journey is thought out. Things like where cities will put the high-speed rail stations, how they will connect with local mass transportation, and how it will all affect urban development.

"A rule of thumb is: If you really want public transit to work, you need north of 10,000 people per square mile," Race said. "Well, in Houston, our average density is 3,600, about a third of that."

Ed Emmett worked in local and state politics for decades prior to offering his expertise as a fellow at Rice University's Baker Institute. Emmett served as Harris County's judge, or chief administrator, from 2007 until 2019. He also served as a transportation expert on the Interstate Commerce Commission under President George H.W. Bush. It's safe to say that he knows a thing or two about trains.

"I'm a huge fan of riding railroads," Emmett said.

He said the real work is in the details of how to pay for a line. Emmett doesn't think anything taxpayer-funded by the state will fly politically. He thinks a private-public partnership, largely funded by federal dollars, will be a politically viable way to put track on the ground and turn a big train into reality.

"And I don't think that certainly hasn't been worked out. And all of this is going to cost a lot of money," Emmett said."When you ask people if they're in favor of high-speed rail, they all say yes. When you ask them if they want to pay for it, they go 'no.'"

Byford said if the conditions and politics line up for high-speed rail in Texas, it could be built within 10 years.