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Buttigieg thinks high-speed rail would be good for Texas, wants highway expansions to consider neighborhood impacts

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By Joshua Fechter, The Texas Tribune

March 17, 2022

Buttigieg thinks high-speed rail would be good for Texas, wants highway expansions to consider neighborhood impacts” was first published by The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan media organization that informs Texans — and engages with them — about public policy, politics, government and statewide issues.

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Editor’s note: This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

In car-friendly Texas, getting a major high-speed rail project off of the ground is almost impossible. For years, attempts to build a commuter rail line between Austin and San Antonio have faltered. The state’s lawyers are in court trying to kill a proposed line between Dallas and Houston.

But as more people flock to the state and its metro areas swell, Texas could benefit from robust passenger rail, U.S. Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg said Wednesday.

“There’s no reason that quality, speedy train service should only be something in the Northeast,” Buttigieg said in an interview with The Texas Tribune.

Buttigieg swung through Texas this week to tout the $565 billion infrastructure bill passed last year — touring Austin’s local commuter rail system with Mayor Steve Adler and making an appearance at the South by Southwest festival.

Out of the infrastructure bill, Texas is slated to get more than $27 billion for roads and bridges, $3.4 billion for public transportation, $1.2 billion for airports and more than $400 million to install chargers for electric vehicles.

Buttigieg sat down with the Tribune for an interview touching on highway expansion, high-speed rail and other transportation topics.

The infrastructure bill contains $1 billion intended to reconnect communities divided by highways. Are the Texas Department of Transportation’s plans to expand Interstate 35 in conflict with that?

There are two things I see in particular with regard to 35. One, a very interesting local vision about capping part of it, which can help reconnect areas that were divided from each other and create that rarest of things which is brand-new land in an important part of the city. The second thing is the vision for expansion. And there what I hope will unfold is a way to do it that is mindful of the long-run consequences and opportunities and encourages not just single-occupancy vehicles but shared-use transit, all the different things that need to be part of a healthy transportation mix.

Traffic on Interstate 35 on May 11, 2020.
Vehicles travel along Interstate 35 in Austin in 2020. Credit: Eddie Gaspar/The Texas Tribune

Do you see Texas wanting to tap those dollars for community reconnection or do you see more interest coming from cities?

I think there’s more excitement and interest for it at the local level. But if there’s a really forward-leaning, forward-looking state that wants to be an applicant, we welcome that conversation.

But is the infrastructure bill in conflict with itself if you have the billion dollars to reconnect communities but also money that helps state transportation departments expand existing highways?

Look, there will always be places, especially high-growth places, where expansions are called for. The important thing for us is to try to encourage that, when that happens, it’s done in a way that minimizes environmental and community impacts. And that really leads into what the future of transportation will look like, instead of just copying the past over and over again.

Is an expansion of I-35’s footprint warranted?

Ultimately, that’s a state decision, not ours, and we respect that division of powers. But what I’ll also say is that anytime an expansion is contemplated, we really want to work with the state on finding ways to make sure that it’s part of the bigger picture that is inclusive and forward-leaning.

Before the infrastructure bill passed, Gov. Greg Abbott was among 16 Republican governors who warned Congress not to bar funds from being used for highway expansion, arguing that doing so would harm “future prosperity” and “be biased against rural states and states with growing populations.” Is that an outmoded way of thinking or are they right about that?

It would certainly be a mistake to suppose that highway expansions equals economic growth in all cases or to imagine that highway expansion automatically equals less congestion, just because experience and data have sometimes shown otherwise. So again, we’re trying not to be unreasonably prescriptive about this, and the law gives a lot of discretion to states. But we are trying to make clear our policy goals and our view that maintaining what you’ve already got is a very important part of what any agency should be — and so is climate and so is the community impact of what you’re proposing to do.

You’re starting to see communities — Houston, Austin and Dallas — that are looking at the displacement legacies of these highways and contemplating their futures. Do you see TxDOT as standing in the way of some of those discussions to reconnect communities?

It’s always good for states and local communities to be listening to each other. And I want to encourage that to happen more in everything. And I certainly think that’s been an important part of what there’s been a call for in the case of Houston and I-45, for example, just for TxDOT and communities to be engaging in a way that can lead to a positive place and, hopefully, even consensus. Now, there’s also of course an enforcement investigation going on there. I can’t speak to that while it’s underway. But I think those things are part of what can arise when a community feels that it needs to take that step in order to assert its rights.

An aerial view of the Clayton Homes complex near I-45 in Houston on Sept. 16, 2019.
An aerial view of Interstate 45 in Houston in 2019. Credit: Miguel Gutierrez Jr./The Texas Tribune

Obviously, Texas is very car-friendly and car-dependent. How do you break the hold that cars and highways have in Texas?

Sometimes we take our land use as a given. And then we say, “Well, here’s how the land’s laid out. So the only way to get where you need to be is with a car.” But actually these are the results of choices. And if we create more options, not just more transportation options directly, but more options in terms of how our housing communities are built up like … that creates more ways for people to not have to bring two tons of metal along with them everywhere they go. So it’s really all of the above. It’s the planning and the design at the community level. And it’s the design of the transportation system itself.

We’re definitely going to have cars and trucks be a very important part of our lives for the foreseeable future. So it’s also just making sure we reduce their environmental impact through things like electric vehicles, which we’re pushing in a very big way in Texas.

Are calls for different options in how we move around going to have to come from cities rather than the state?

I think the cities are leading the way. But I’ll also add that I think as rural residents see the benefits of going electric, they will be among those who have the most to gain as you see these pickup trucks, for example, becoming more affordable. It’s rural drivers who cover the longest distances, which means they burn the most gas or diesel, which means they would save the most money if they could afford and use an EV.

That’s why we’re trying to make them easier to use and more affordable for everybody. Our proposals would take a $40,000, U.S.-made pickup truck and bring it into the high 20s if those tax credits went through. That would mean a lot of rural Texans in some of the reddest counties in the state — who I’m pretty sure like saving money just as much as somebody who lives in the heart of Austin — really respond and see how they’re better off.

There’s a project in San Antonio where they were going to make their main street more friendly to cyclists and pedestrians while reducing the number of car lanes. TxDOT threw a wrench in the project. What conversations do you have with TxDOT to make them more amenable to projects like that?

When TxDOT’s at the table with me, a big concern and interest of theirs is flexibility and naturally as a state agency they want the flexibility to take federal dollars and use them in ways that they think makes sense. I would encourage them to work with cities and communities on the same terms and think about the flexibility that will allow local decisions to go forward in a way that benefits everybody. I do think ultimately it’s from the ground up that you see the most energy and some of the most creative ideas.

Given the greenhouse gas emissions that come from the transportation sector, why is the federal government still in highway construction?

Look, highways and driving are an extremely important part of the American economy and the American transportation system. That’s going to be true for the foreseeable future. That’s why it’s so important for us, not just to create alternatives to single-occupancy cars, which we’re doing, but to make sure that driving is greener, and that’s where the EVs come in, why it’s so important. We’ve got to do all of these things at once. I think we can move to a much greener future without having to believe anything unrealistic about the future, how we get around. We’re not going to be zipping around and flying drones or anything like that anytime soon. So we need to work with the system we have but also push it as fast as we can.

Do you see high-speed rail happening in Texas? Major rail projects have a hard time getting off the ground here. For example, the state is arguing in court that a proposed rail project between Dallas and Houston can’t use eminent domain to build its system. How do you feel about the progression here?

I’ll take care not to weigh in on things that are actively happening legally, or in terms of a … process right now. But let me say this, I actually think Texas as a geography is a great candidate for high-speed rail because what you have are major population centers that are part of the same overall economic region but are also independent. They’re a certain distance from each other that discourages routinely driving between them, but could be covered on an almost daily basis if there is a convenient, fast, easy option to do so. I think that’s the appeal — certainly the vision — for Texas high-speed rail, including the current project.

A public scoping meeting on the Dallas to Houston High-Speed Rail hosted by TXDOT and the Federal Railroad Administration in Houston on Oct. 29, 2014.
A public scoping meeting on the Dallas to Houston High-Speed Rail hosted by TXDOT and the Federal Railroad Administration in Houston on Oct. 29, 2014. Credit: Michael Stravato for The Texas Tribune
The Northwest Transit Center, a park-and-ride where several bus stops converge, in Houston Thursday, February 16, 2017 and a possible location for the proposed high speed rail from Dallas.
Busses converge at the Northwest Transit Center in Houston, a possible location for a proposed high speed rail from Dallas, on Feb. 16, 2017. Credit: Michael Stravato for The Texas Tribune

First: A public meeting on the Dallas-Houston high-speed rail hosted by the Texas Department of Transportation and the Federal Railroad Administration in Houston in 2014. Last: Buses converge at the Northwest Transit Center in Houston, near a planned station for the proposed high-speed rail connecting to Dallas. Credit: Michael Stravato for The Texas Tribune

When you look at the story of Project Connect [Austin’s $7 billion voter-backed transit plan that includes light rail and a subway line], you could argue that you start the clock in 2000, it takes 20 years before the political will, the leadership, the coalitions are right for it to happen. But it happens. So yes, it’s taken longer than people hope. Yes, it’s got a long way to go. But I would definitely not write off Texas as a very promising place for quality passenger rail.

There’s no reason that quality speedy train service should only be something in the Northeast. This is a great place for those kinds of deployments.

Disclosure: Steve Adler is a former Texas Tribune board chair and has been a financial supporter of the Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan news organization that is funded in part by donations from members, foundations and corporate sponsors. Financial supporters play no role in the Tribune’s journalism. Find a complete list of them here.

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