On True Roads

The fundamental problem with this “criticism” of the Texas Central project is: It’s a true road.

True roads connect places together, often places at long distances from one another. Most major transportation infrastructure takes the form of a true road: a canal, a railroad, a freeway. True roads make getting from Place A to Place B faster and easier (i.e. cheaper), though they often bias towards one or the other. Canals, especially lockless canals, are very cheap to maintain, but slow to traverse; a high-speed railroad is expensive to build and maintain, but is the fastest (the kind of “fastest” that has asterisk attached) method of overland travel.

The upshot of this is that true roads always accrue economic benefits to places connected, rather than places traversed. In the Wild West, a train station often made all the difference between whether a town prospered or died. The benefits were so apparent that towns often subsidized railroads to build lines to them. It is therefore silly in the extreme to complain that the Texas Central won’t bring economic benefits along its corridor: by design, high-speed rail, like all true roads, economically benefits the places it goes to — in this case, Houston and Dallas.

And Texas Central is accurate in that the economic benefits high-speed rail brings are measurable. I believe they have been modeled, although I’m not about to spend the next three hours reading articles on JSTOR (assuming I can access it) or Google Scholar to back up that assertion.

That said, the opponents do have valid environmental concerns. Until the very late 19th century, roads were environmentally neutral, representing an interruption in the local ecology that was quickly and easily adapted to. This was as true for a stone Roman road as it was for an Indian track as it was for an early railbed when trains didn’t travel much faster than 30 mph. Canals, with their weir systems, were the most environmentally destructive, and even then I wouldn’t be surprised if some fish figured out they could more safely use the locks meant to move canal boats upstream.

That all changed about 150 years ago. Trains that could travel at 60 mph, then 100 mph, were developed; railyards that were suicide for wildlife to traverse were built; and then with the Better Roads movement and the Interstates, gigantic freeways — great yawning chasms of asphalt, splitting biomes apart — were developed. Suddenly, instead of a human construction that wildlife could adjust their lifestyles around, roads became walls, splitting whole environments in two. Habitats were fractured, and species began to decline.

Europeans, recognizing this, have begun constructing “ecoducts“, viaducts and tunnels designed to be wildlife passages along their true roads. Americans have followed suit to a lesser degree, but an ecoduct represents a major investment (a viaduct is much more expensive than an embankment, and tunnels are always expensive) for no discernible economic return. For a private entity like the Texas Central, lineside wildlife management probably represents something on Page 34 of their list of priorities. It won’t become higher without significant activism for it to be.

Of least concern to me is agricultural land. Texas, to put it mildly, is not lacking in that regard. (Of course, if it’s irrigated agricultural land, that’s much more valuable and would be worth maintaining with viaducts over farmland.)

But there is one critique buried near the bottom which suggests the Texas Central and the state are acting under a very 19th-century model:

TCR is hiding behind the protective claim of a private company to deny open records by the public, while receiving public funds and government assistance and recently asking for state and federal government guarantee loans. They even refuse to release their ridership analysis. TCR had their legal team conceal documents that appear to tell a different story then what the public is being told, that is why the recent law suit by Texans Against HSR request to have the records opened for public access.

If you’ve ever been a student of 19th century politics and policy, you’ll know that this is exactly how railroads in the West were developed. With natural monopolies lineside, often with towns reached because of subsidies (tax breaks were unknown), and with state collusion often picking winners, there was a fair amount of public money that went into the construction of “private” railroads. This should be unsurprising. Building a railroad on the frontier is an inherently risky venture; railroads are upfront-capital-intensive, and building into the frontier means that, unlike east of the Mississippi, you don’t have the benefit of an obvious destination, someplace to go to; the Western railroads had to create their own destinations as they went along.

None of what Texas Central is asking for from the state is an unfair ask. This is important to recognize. Building a true road without any kind of public assistance at all is stupendously risky and stupendously expensive. (For example, a hundred-mile length of railroad between Baltimore and Philadelphia nearly bankrupted the B&O, then a wealthy railroad … in the late 1800s.) For states and regions, the economic benefits of providing new means of connectivity between their economic centers are significant enough that true roads are pretty much always worth subsidizing in some form or another.

The two most difficult things for an incipient railroad to procure is a clear right-of-way and the upfront capital to develop it. By awarding the TC condemnation rights along the right-of-way and offering it a line of credit, Texas is giving the TC a leg up — but that is something the railroad must capitalize on.

All of that said, now, while the Texas Central has a point that they’re a private firm … that doesn’t mean that they should be immune from FOIA filings! The public has every right to look at the paperwork they’ve submitted to the state, and that includes the paperwork necessary to get condemnation rights and a line of credit. We need to see what their business plan is*, ridership projections, etc., in order to compare and argue about whether it’s a good investment. Much like SEC filings, anything submitted to public authorities should be considered in the public domain, and available for public review.

To say this is not happening is to imply that the Texas Central is operating in a shadier way than CAHSR and AAF have been.


* Though I have a good idea it involves land development around the planned termini.

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