Yesterday’s Dallas News reported  that Vice President Joe Biden supports the latest effort to bring high speed rail service between Dallas and Houston being pursued by Texas Central Partners. The same edition contained the age old story of Texas rural landowners opposed to the project.

So  what’s  new?  I  personally  have  seen  this movie  before.  Former Texas Lt. Governor Ben Barnes headed  up a more ambitious effort to bring such service to four Texas cities back in 1989 in conjunction with a French railway giant   Like  the Dallas venture, it was to be privately financed.  Dubbed the TGV Supertrain, it would also include Austin  and San Antonio  in the system along with Dallas and Houston, thus covering a much wider swath of right-of-way. Predictably, aroused landowners rose up in anger over the invasion of their property.  That opposition was aided and abetted by Southwest Airlines, which feared the coming competition. The anti forces played effectively on concerns of rural residents  along the routes as they raised the spector of all sorts of dark consquences from the insidious trains. One narrative warned that milk cows along the routes would be so alarmed that they would stop giving milk.

I had a ringside  seat in that battle. Our public relations  firm, Read-Poland Associates, handled communications  for the project, working under San Antonio business executive Glenn Biggs, who took over as CEO in 1991. We had our hands full responding to a  stream of misrepresentation and unfounded claims of the opposition. I personally became involved in combating the milk cows scare. I travelled to France and rode a TGV train through a picturesque rural area south on Paris to check out claims of their distress. I returned with photographs of herds of cows serenely munching grass only yards from the speeding train, without even tuning their heads.

As part of our effort to overcome opposition, we staged 35 community meetings along the routes to correct misinformation and answer questions about the project.  Regretfully,  fears stoked  by  the  opposition prevailed,  The death knell came when primary finance partner Morrison Knudsen pulled the funding plug in the face of a looming payment milestone required by the Texas High Speed Rail Authority. Thus Texas lost the opportunity of a lifetime to have a transportation  alternative to today’s jammed and treacherous highways. The enormity of that  loss can be illustrated by looking at the estimated cost of that visionary effort compared to that  of today’s new more modest plan. The projected cost of the 1990s Supertrain system–serving Dallas-Fort Worth, Houston, San Antonio and Austin totaled $5 billion dollars. By contrast, backers of the proposed new high speed rail project a cost estimate of $10 billion for a Dallas-Houston line alone. Even my dear friend and earlier client Herb Kelleher, retired honcho at Southwest,  is said to now regret that Texas missed the boat 15 years ago.

But good luck Texas Central Partners!  And look out for those cows and their owners…

–Julian Read

11.20.15