Freight normally hauled by trucks could one day soon be shipped on an electric-powered, overhead guideway across Texas. It may seem like an idea more suitable for Tomorrowland – and artist renderings of the project do resemble Disney’s famed monorail system – but Texas officials are encouraging a privately-funded business to get the project up and running, perhaps within six years.
"We think it’s happening at just the right time in our country,” said Stephen Roop, an assistant director at Texas A&M University’s Texas Transportation Institute, and developer of the so-called Freight Shuttle concept. “It can operate in the air space of a highway median.”
Roop and his colleagues have formed Freight Shuttle International, a company that is cobbling together the estimated $2.5 billion needed to build the first leg of this futuristic transportation system. The guideways would be built within the existing right-of-way of Interstate 35, initially stretching about 250 miles from San Antonio to Waxahachie – but eventually extending north through Dallas-Fort Worth, and south to the Mexican border. Ultimately, Freight Shuttle guideways could be built on more than 2,000 miles of highway right-of-way across the state, he said.
The system would haul cargo of various sizes, packed in both intermodal containers and freight trailers. Terminals would be built at each end of the route, so that trucks could load and off-load their goods onto the Freight Shuttle guideways. The shipments would be placed on unmanned transporters powered by linear induction motors using electricity and a magnetic field. They would glide on steel wheels across the guideways at about 60 mph, Roop told members of the Tarrant Regional Transportation Coalition during a meeting Wednesday in Fort Worth.
Shippers would be able to get their goods across the state for pennies on the dollar compared to what it costs to haul freight in tractor-trailers, said Ken Allen, a retired logistics executive for grocery giant H-E-B Stores and chief executive officer of Freight Shuttle International’s operations unit. “We estimate it would be 25 percent cheaper than a very efficient trucking operation,” Allen said. For consumers, Allen added, “It probably amounts to a savings of 4 to 5 cents for a gallon of milk, and H-E-B sells probably three million gallons a week.”
The Texas Department of Transportation last year quietly put out a request for qualifications for the project. Six firms initially responded with a proposal for moving freight across the state without clogging up freeway lanes, but Freight Shuttle International emerged from the competition as the lone qualified candidate. The transportation department is close to approving a reservation of right-of-way agreement that would give Freight Shuttle International first dibs on the project. That document would give the company three years to arrange its financing and conduct an environmental study, Roop said. Another three years would be needed for construction, he said. Most of the work could be done in highway median space with minimal traffic disruptions.
The prospect of reducing truck traffic on the I-35 corridor excited several members of the Tarrant Regional Transportation Coalition. Tarrant County Judge Glen Whitley said he could envision moving people on trains in the highway right-of-way, too, instead of relying on railroad tracks owned and controlled by freight companies. “That right-of-way above the interstate is something that is beginning to be more attractive, especially given our negotiations with Union Pacific,” Whitley said. “If that would be possible, especially inside urban areas, that would be very intriguing along certain routes like LBJ, I-30 and I-20.”