Sunday, November 24, 2013

Road most traveled: Study advocates high-speed rail on Texas highways

One of the cheapest and most effective ways to build high-speed rail in Texas could be to place the tracks right on top of highway right-of-way.
That was among the conclusions in a University of Texas at Arlington study recently released.
The study adds fuel for thought as passenger rail advocates work on a plan to build a bullet train service connecting Dallas-Fort Worth to Houston, possibly by 2021.
“I’m really pleased at the times that were achievable,” said Stephen Mattingly, UTA civil engineering professor who led the team of researchers. Mattingly said he was somewhat surprised that the study concluded trains could move as fast as 186 mph in many areas along roadways “that were built for automobiles to go 80 mph.”
The idea would be to build high-speed rail lines either in the median or along highway roadsides, separate from car traffic, with no at-grade crossings. For bullet trains to go at their optimal speeds, curves would need to be minimized.
The key is that highway land is already owned by the state, eliminating the need for whoever wants to build high-speed rail to spend potentially billions of dollars buying or leasing private property — and possibly having to seize some of it through eminent domain.
Four corridors
The study explored the possibility of two types of high-speed rail: steel-wheel trains that resemble trains most Texans are accustomed to seeing in freight yards, and “maglev,” which would use magnetic levitation to propel a train. Maglev is a relatively new technology, but has been used in some high-speed lines in China and a handful of other places.
The study recommended a more detailed investigation of possible high-speed rail lines in four corridors. They are: Interstate 20 from Fort Worth to Dallas, Interstate 45 from Houston to Dallas, Interstate 35 from Laredo to the DFW area and Texas 6 from Houston to Waco.
It also concluded that in many instances maglev rail technology would allow for higher-speed service than steel-wheel trains.
One firm looking to build high-speed rail in the Lone Star State is Texas Central Railway, which is backed by the Japanese company that built bullet trains that remain very popular between Toyko and Osaka.
Texas Central Railway has proposed using state-of-the-art trains capable of traveling up to 220 mph, like those used in Japan. The trains are steel-wheeled.
The company has proposed building the Dallas-to-Houston line, expected to cost $10 billion, with no public funding. Much of that line is expected to be built on freight railroad right-of-way, not along highways, according to several officials who have been briefed on the concept.
However, regional leaders and the North Central Texas Council of Governments have advocated that any system built in Texas must have three stops: Dallas, Fort Worth and somewhere in the middle such as Arlington or Dallas/Fort Worth Airport.
Three-stop option
The three-stop option could require significant public spending, mainly because of the higher price of land for rail right-of-way in the densely populated urban area — although some supporters have proposed building the line along Interstate 30 between Fort Worth and Dallas.
Texas Central Railway officials declined to comment on the UTA study, which was paid for partly by the Texas Department of Transportation, except to say that they encourage discussion of all options.
Travis Kelly, Texas Central Railway director, did say that whatever right-of-way is used must accommodate the fastest train technology available.
While the prospect of being able to go from Dallas to Houston in 90 minutes would be very attractive to frequent travelers — much faster than air travel, when factors such as checkpoints and weather delays are included — a trip that takes more than two hours would not be nearly as popular.
“We are looking for right-of-way that can accommodate the demands of our technology,” Kelly said.
Gordon Dickson, 817-390-7796 Twitter: @gdickson

Sunday, October 20, 2013

First foreign-owned toll road in Texas downgraded to junk bond status

By Terry Hall - TURF -  published in the Examiner,com
Hate to say it, but we told you so.
Texas’ first foreign-owned toll road financed through a controversial public private partnership just got downgraded to junk bond status by Moody’s Investors Service. The Spain-based firm, Cintra (65% ownership), and San Antonio-based Zachry (35% ownership), known asSH 130 Concession Company opened the southern leg of State Highway 130 last November.
Concerned citizens with Texans Uniting for Reform and Freedom (TURF) immediately launched a boycott of SH 130. Since then, the anemically low traffic levels signaled trouble from the beginning and Moody’s downgraded the concession company’s rating in April warning of the risk of default. The downgrade this week warns of default unless the company can restructure its debt or attract a substantial increase in traffic.
Moody’s predicts Cintra will be unable to meet its June 2014 debt service payment: “Thus, absent a sponsor injection of equity, a debt restructuring, or some other method of generating significantly more revenues, there is a high likelihood of a payment default in June 2014.”
The concessionaire has already dipped into its reserves to meet prior debt service payments and will need to tap its contingency funds to make its December payment, leaving inadequate funds to meet its June 2014 debt payment. If Cintra defaults on its debt, the Texas Department of Transportation (TxDOT) could execute a termination agreement and takeover the tollway, leaving lenders with limited ability to take possession of the facility as collateral.
It’s unclear whether TxDOT would continue to operate the highway as a toll road or as a freeway. State Representative Paul Workman authored a bill in the Texas legislature earlier this year to tap state and federal funds to buy back the ailing tollway and make it a freeway. Many predict if SH 130 were a free highway that the road would finally attract significant levels of traffic from the heavily congested Interstate 35, which most travelers cannot afford to do now given the high cost of tolls in addition to the higher consumption of gas given the road’s extra distance and the road’s highest-in-the-nation 85 MPH speed limit.
NAFTA superhighway going south
One of the drivers behind the push to build SH 130 was the anticipated influx of truck and trade traffic due to NAFTA. It was part of the Trans Texas Corridor TTC-35 project and the only segment of the corridor to ever be built. Texas Governor Rick Perry and state lawmakers pulled the plug on the politically unpopular project in 2009 when Texans went nuclear over the massive size (originally 1,200 feet wide - of three times the size of an normal interstate) and hence the giant land grab using eminent domain for private profits as well as the concept of foreign-ownership of its public highways.
But the push to privatize Texas roadways and build the corridor piece-by-piece utilizingpublic private partnerships (known as P3s) with a smaller footprint still advances. NAFTA traffic isn’t going to abate anytime soon with the anticipated expansion of the Panama Canal expected to open next year. The Texas legislature approved a bill, SB 1730, earlier this year allowing 23 projects to be privatized using P3s -- a few part of the original Trans Texas Corridor plan.
Taxpayers footing the bill
Texas taxpayers have already subsidized the privately-operated tollway through advertising and buying down a one-year truck toll rate reduction announced at the beginning of the year. Texans have also paid for new signage along Interstate 410 and Interstate 10 to entice travelers to use the privately-run tollway.
All U.S. taxpayers are on the hook for repayment of a $430 million federal TIFIA loan on the SH 130 project. It’s the TIFIA loan that complicates any default and the potential for the tollway to be converted to a freeway. On the first P3 that received a TIFIA loan, the SouthBay Expressway in San Diego, the project went bankrupt in less than three years after its opening when forecasted traffic was wildly overstated and off by nearly 40,000 cars a day. Taxpayers had to eat nearly $80 million in losses on that TIFIA loan. Building roads with debt is never a good thing.
P3s a big bust
The failure of Texas’ first public-private venture demonstrates the folly of utilizing P3s for public infrastructure. Taxpayer money is always involved and therefore the potential for taxpayer bailouts is always looming. Throw in the fact that they contain non-compete clauses that limit or prohibit the expansion of free roads surrounding the private tollways, and P3s directly threaten one’s freedom of mobility.
At the end of the day, P3s represent public money for private profits and do little to solve urban congestion. Texas is building underutilized tollways using a scurrilous financing mechanism that erodes state sovereignty and impedes freedom to travel. Lawmakers and whoever the new governor will be need to dump P3s and get back to a freely accessible, affordable pay-as-you-go freeway system that serves all Texans equitably.

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