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The Lone Star state has a radical plan to develop futuristic transportation—but the most radical part is a handover of $50 million taxpayer dollars to a think tank. 

While the media debates whether President Barack Obama's signature high-speed rail initiative has yielded any results, Texas is moving forward with its own plan. Texas Central Railway plans to build a 200-mile-per-hour bullet train between Dallas and Houston, modeled after (and with the support of) Japanese rail.

Under this plan, the Texas Central Railway company would build a rail line entirely with private money. The company is already working with the Federal Railroad Administration and the Texas Department of Transportation on an environmental impact statement, which is also being prepared with private money. While the plan has not yet settled on a preferred route, its backers say that the Texas Central Railway line will stick to existing rights of way wherever possible. 

With private funders picking up the tab for high-speed rail in Texas, what is a Texas Department of Transportation to do? Well, the state is looking instead into  jetpacks, hover cars, and roadways paved with solar panels—and funding a think tank that looks a lot like a lobbyist giveaway.

According to a report in the Texas Tribune, TxDOT officials will ask the state for $50 million over two years to fund research initiatives on futuristic methods of transportation. The report draws on a presentation assembled by the Texas Transportation Commission that highlights maglev trains, a networked street grid, and an elevated freight shuttle as R&D projects worth Texas taxpayer dollars.  

The request has both vertical and horizontal problems. In terms of funding, the $25 million budgeted for each year of the two-year TxDOT Research Program comes at a time when TxDOT says that it is running $4 billion short annually on funds for roads and maintenance. (In terms of applications, well, the plan would devote some money to beyond-the-Astrodome ideas.)

Outrageously, this $50 million won't even put Texans in actual jetpacks any time soon. In the medium term, it will establish a "a test bed capability and initiate project experiments and tests, coordinated with the universities"—for things like solar-panel runways, autonomous cars, and other "disruptive technology or solutions."

In other words, the proposal would fund a $50 million think tank. That's where things get hinky.


The Texas Tribune quotes Tommy Williams, a recent Texas state senator who now serves as the vice chancellor for federal and state relations at Texas A&M University, as approving the TxDOT Research Program. And no wonder: As a senator, Williams chaired the Senate Finance Committee as well as the Senate Transportation and Homeland Security Committee. He was instrumental in setting state budget priorities during the last legislative session.

Now, as chief lobbyist for Texas A&M University, he can guide state transportation funding toward the university. Williams is not even opaque about the fact. "The chancellor and our board has a vision that we should have a think tank dedicated to solving the problems the state faces over the next decades," he tells the Tribune. "And I think there’s general agreement that transportation issues are at the very top of that list." 

Williams didn't go so far as to name any targets for this funding, but one springs to mind: the Texas A&M Transportation Institute, a research group that "develops solutions to the problems and challenges facing all modes of transportation." As a state senator, Williams relied on TTI research for a proposal to raise the state's vehicle-registration fee, cited the group in editorials and internal reports, and gave talks at TTI events

Which is not to disparage the quality of research done by TTI—and to be fair, the Tribune story says that TxDOT has been or plans to be in talks with other universities about participating. If the research program isn't merely an A&M giveaway, it aims to be a broad boondoggle at best.

Spending badly needed state transportation funds on a think tank for hover cars? As earmarks go, that's worse than a road to nowhere. It's not even a road.

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