When most think of high-speed rail in the United States, they think of the ambitious and controversial effort in California.

The project, already 16 years in the making, is subject to bitter debate among Golden State legislators -- mostly about its speculative funding plan, which assumes that as much as $42 billion of its $68.4 billion price tag will come from the federal government even though no indications point to an end to domestic spending cuts any time soon.

Robert Eckels, who's pursuing a high-speed rail project in Texas, says his company will take a different approach. “We’re not looking for a big chunk of cash from the state of Texas or the federal government,” Eckels told Governing.

Eckels, the former executive of the state's largest county (Harris) is now president of Texas Central High-Speed Railway, which hopes to run a bullet train between Houston and the Dallas-Fort Worth area by 2021. It would transport passengers about 240 miles in 90 minutes or less. “It’s an aggressive schedule,” he says, “but not unreasonable.”
What makes Texas Central's plan different from other high-speed rail projects is that it doesn't depend on government funds. The company is still in the early process of securing financing, conducting engineering analyses, and developing economic and environmental feasibility studies, but it could be a model worth watching -- one that would be a stark contrast to the effort in California.
Eckels, for his part, insists that his company will not become a money suck for taxpayers. “I’ve enjoyed not being a part of the government,” Eckels says. “We will have a project that makes sense and is viable. We are not looking for a subsidized operation.”
Texas Central has some high-profile backers. It’s directly affiliated with U.S.-Japan High-Speed Rail, a Washington, D.C.-based company founded by an American venture capital company and Japanese high-speed rail operator Central Japan Railway Co., which would supply the technology for the endeavor. That company runs bullet trains between Tokyo and Osaka.
Eckels himself also comes with a good reputation. He gained national attention for the way he and Harris County handled the influx of New Orleans-area residents seeking shelter from Hurricane Katrina.
Eckels says Texas Central will need about $8 billion to $12 billion in investment -- though that’s a rough estimate. Unlike the state-run California project, which has seen its cost estimates fluctuate from $34 billion to $43 billion to $98.5 billion and now $68.4 billion, Texas Central will have to abide by its budget and as a private company, can't afford to have “moving targets,” Eckels says.
“The key for us is to make sure our budget is right at the beginning,” he says. “We’re not using the government as a backstop.”
Ryan Holeywell  |  Contributing Writer