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Texas Central signs a manufacturing deal

For your information.

The bullet train planned between Houston and Dallas has a builder.

Texas Central, the private company developing the Texas Bullet Train, announced Friday morning it signed a deal with Salini Impregilo, the Italian construction giant, and its American subsidiary, Lane Construction.

“This agreement brings us one step closer to beginning construction of the civil infrastructure segments of the project,” said Texas Central CEO Carlos F. Aguilar, in a statement.

The deal is valued at $14 billion and includes final engineering and design of the 240-mile high-speed rail line and construction of the route, mostly along a utility corridor between the two metro regions.

The full press release is here. Texas Central achieved another milestone a few days earlier.

The Federal Railway Administration granted the Rule of Particular Applicability—or RPA—to Texas Central on Sept. 4 regarding the high-speed rail project slated to connect Dallas and Houston, according to a Sept. 4 press release from Texas Central.

This means the high-speed rail project is on track for both FRA actions—the RPA and the environmental permit—to be completed in 2020 with financial close and construction quickly following, according to the release.

RPAs are regulations that apply to a specific railroad or a specific type of operation to ensure a project’s safety, according to FRA information. This action, along with an environmental permit, is required before the project can be implemented.

“The FRA’s action on the Rule of Particular Applicability marks a major milestone in our quest to bring a transformative mobility solution, while minimizing impact on the environment and land use, as opposed to other options,” Texas Central CEO Carlos Aguilar said in the release. “We will meet or exceed all requirements the FRA mandates, to ensure we have the safest high-speed rail system in the world.”

Here’s a longer version of the story. The Environmental Impact Statement is as always the big hurdle to clear. If they’re on pace for that, then we really will see actual construction begin. I’ll be looking for it.

Time for an update on that other high speed rail line

It’s been awhile.

TexasOklahomaPassengerRailStudyRoutes

Backers continue to move along on plans to build a bullet-train route between Dallas and Houston, but it’s not the only high-speed passenger rail project on Texas drawing boards.

With a proposal to run between cities such as Fort Worth, Waco, Austin, San Antonio and Laredo, the project recently got a green light for new money to do further study.

“We’re still an embryo,” said Kevin Feldt, a North Central Texas Council of Governments program manager overseeing the high-speed rail project regionally. “We’re still in the first week or two of pregnancy.”

Nobody has begun buying right of way or buying trains, let alone figured out funding and finance — topics that can fire skepticism about the passenger rail’s ability to break even or turn a profit — but there’s now an environmental impact statement, and potential investors have come calling.

“Suffice it to say, there’s interest in developing (from) Fort Worth southward, possibly to Monterrey, Mexico,” Feldt said. “We’ve had the French and Chinese and Spanish come to us and meet with us to talk about it.

“Some wanted to do one piece; we had others who wanted to do everything.”

The proposed line from North Texas cities — Dallas and Arlington included — is part of an 850-mile project called the Texas-Oklahoma Passenger Rail Program Corridor.

[…]

Feldt said that whatever comes out of the next round of study, actually building a high-speed passenger rail — not to mention a Hyperloop system — will be “a lot more complex” than the challenges the private company working to roll out the Dallas/Houston passenger train has encountered.

The Dallas/Houston corridor is not only flatter and easier to run a high-speed train across, but less populous.

Still, like Feldt, Bill Meadows, who chairs the Commission for High Speed Rail in the Dallas/Fort Worth Region, noted the interest from Chinese and French rail representatives in discussing a public-private project here.

And, said Meadows, “They like the (Interstate) 35 corridor better than the (Interstate) 45 corridor.”

See here for the last update that I have, from July of 2016. Since then, the Draft Environmental Study has been completed, which “formally identifies seven Selected Alternatives that will serve as the framework for future investment in new and improved conventional and high-speed passenger rail service in three regions between Oklahoma City and South Texas”. The story also mentions the Hyperloop One Global Challenge, for which Texas remains in contention, though it’s not clear to me from the story how it fits in here. There’s lots of other obstacles that will need to be cleared for anything tangible to happen here, from choosing a single route to putting together financing and governance, to overcoming the inevitable political opposition. But things continue to move, and at this stage that’s about all you can ask for.

SNCF has qualms about Texas Central

Who is SNCF? They’re another passenger rail company, one that has also expressed an interest in building lines in Texas, and they have offered some negative feedback to the Texas Central high speed rail line.

One of the world’s largest train operators says that its proposal of a passenger rail network that includes the Interstate 35 corridor would be a better fit for Texas than the $15 billion Dallas-to-Houston bullet train that’s on the table.

“Look at the state as a whole. Instead of creating a link, create a network,” said SNCF America president Alain Leray, who is visiting Dallas, Austin and Waco this week on the heels of filing his company’s eight-pages of commentary on the Federal Draft Environmental Statement for the Dallas-to-Houston line.

Maryland-based SNCF America, a branch of the French National Railway, pitched its “Texas T-bone” idea to the Federal Railroad Administration in 2008 and 2016. The plan calls for “higher speed rail” service of 125 mph.

The railroad administration has instead proceeded to work with Texas Central Partners on a Dallas-to-Houston bullet line featuring speeds up to 210 mph and using Japanese technology.

[…]

If Texas Central Partners is first on the ground in the U.S., SNCF officials feel it may be game over for their firm and any other competition.

Currently, federal regulations do not address equipment requirements for train speeds above 150 mph. Texas Central Partners has petitioned for what is known as a rule of particular applicability (RPA). If the RPA is accepted and Texas Central successfully builds the nation’s first bullet line, it will be creating the standard.

“I think they have done a remarkable job. They are fighters and go-getters,” Leray said Monday of Texas Central. “Their chances of getting an RPA elsewhere becomes so much greater if they get this.”

See here, here, and here for more on SNCF, which has proposed a version of the “Texas T-Bone that would connect both San Antonio and Houston to D/FW. They have also expressed concern about that RPA in the past, which I can understand. As someone who wants passenger rail to be a success in Texas, and who wants to see as much of it built as possible, I’d say that if SNCF or some other rail company has a viable proposal for an additional line in Texas that depends on a standard that doesn’t lock them out of the market, then that should be taken into account when evaluating Texas Central’s RPA. Building the first line should not be a pathway to monopoly. On the other hand, if SNCF or whoever else doesn’t have anything remotely close to being in the pipeline, then I’m not sure what the fuss is about.

The bottom line is that I support maximizing the potential for passenger rail in Texas. It’s been my hope that if the Texas Central line is successful, it was generate demand for extensions and additions to it. Whatever furthers that goal is fine by me, and whatever hinders it should be avoided.

Public meetings for Texas Central draft EIS

You got something you want to say about the proposed high speed rail line and its possible routes, here’s your chance.

Houston residents are being asked to weigh in on a plan to build a $12 billion high-speed train between the city and Dallas.

The meeting is set for Feb. 5 and will be coordinated by the Federal Railroad Administration, which must approve plans for the Texas Bullet Train.

[…]

Texas Central, which has support from Houston and Dallas city officials, said the line would stop south of downtown Dallas and then in Houston, near Loop 610 and U.S. 290, the Houston Chronicle’s Dug Begley reported.

Relevant info about the meetings is here. The schedule for meetings near us in Houston is as follows:

Madison County – Monday, February 5, 2018, 5 p.m. to 9 p.m.
Truman Kimbro Convention Center, 111 W Trinity St, Madisonville, TX 77864

Harris County – Monday, February 5, 2018, 6:00 p.m. to 10:00 p.m.
Woodard Elementary School, 17501 Cypress North Houston Rd, Cypress, TX 77433

Grimes County – Tuesday, February 6, 2018, 6:00 p.m. to 10:00 p.m.
Navasota Junior High, 9038 Highway 90 South, Navasota, TX 77868

Waller County – Tuesday, February 6, 2018, 5 p.m. to 9 p.m.
Waller High School, 20950 Fields Store Rd, Waller, TX 77484

You can also provide feedback or sign up to receive updates on the project from the Federal Railroad Administration here. As a reminder, there are three possible locations for the Houston terminal, and one of the goals of the DEIS project is to pick a winner from those three. So speak now or forever hold your peace.

High speed rail line route finalist chosen

Here’d where the Texas Central rail route will be, modulo some possible final tweaks and any further political obstacles.

Federal officials narrowed the possible paths for a Dallas-Houston bullet train down to one likely route Friday, providing an unknown number of rural Texans the most definitive answer so far as to whether their land will be in the path of the controversial project.

Much of the planned route had already been largely solidified. But documents released Friday by the Federal Railroad Administration filled in the rest of the gaps, favoring a more westerly route that runs through Navarro, Freestone, Leon, Madison and Limestone counties. Another potential route that was dropped from consideration would have avoided Limestone County.

[…]

The release of the draft Friday marked a major step toward getting federal clearance for the project. While it provides a clearer picture of the expected route, the path could slightly change in some areas as development and federal oversight continues.

The study also provided new details about stations planned in Grimes County and Houston. The Grimes County station is planned for State Highway 30 between Huntsville and College Station. There are three potential Houston station locations: land where Northwest Mall currently sits, an industrial area across from that shopping center and an industrial area closer to the nearby Northwest Transit Center.

The planned Dallas station remains just south of downtown.

The report is here. The original report, which listed six possible routes, came out two years ago – the environmental review process is not intended to be quick, but to be thorough. The station in Grimes County is intended to serve the Bryan/College Station area; the Texas Central summary of the report notes that “direct shuttle service to Texas A&M University” will be included, so you Aggie fans might make note of that. What I notice is that the route avoids Montgomery County, where a lot of the opposition to the line was based. Maybe some of those folks will lose interest now that they’re not in consideration any more. Grimes County, where the midpoint station will be located, is also a hotbed of resistance to TCR; Ben Leman, chair of Texans Against High-Speed Rail, just stepped down as Grimes County Judge to run for the Lege. If all goes well for TCR, they’ll have construction going before the next Lege gavels in.

Anyway. This is a big step forward for Texas Central. There’s still a 60-day public feedback period, and then the final route will be determined. Both DART and Metro will need to make some decisions about how they will connect to the terminals, and the Houston end has to be chosen. But we’re getting close. With a bit of luck, by this time next year we’ll have had a groundbreaking. I’m looking forward to it. The DMN has more.

Texas Central picks builders

Noted for the record.

Backers of a Texas bullet train are moving to the next stop, selecting a team to build the Houston-to-Dallas line, despite not having a clear shot – yet – at construction.

Texas Central on Monday morning announced it reached agreement with Irving-based Fluor Enterprises and The Lane Construction Corporation, based in Connecticut, for further refinement and study of the proposed route. Once financing for the project, expected to cost at least $12 billion, is secured and federal approvals are obtained, the companies would then be the primary design-builders of the line.

[…]

Texas Central, which despite some opposition emerged from the state legislative session unscathed, is also awaiting a federal environmental process necessary to proceed. Company officials are also lining up financing for the project. Any construction will have to wait for those outcomes.

In 2014, officials predicted work would start by 2017. Based on typical timelines for federal review, the earliest construction could start on the line would be late 2018, meaning a 2023 completion, according to Texas Central’s previous timelines.

The company also continues to face opposition, especially in rural areas of Texas where some landowners remain steadfast in not selling their land, and local elected officials have said the project provides little benefit.

I post this not because it’s particularly interesting but to put a pin in where we stand today. Texas Central survived the legislative session without anything bad happening to them, and if all goes more or less as they say, they will have started construction on the line by the time the 2019 Lege gavels in. Will that be sufficient insurance against further legislative meddling? Maybe, I don’t know. On the one hand, a project in progress ought to be harder to kill, but on the other hand since this project will necessarily involve some taking of land, that may just amp up the urgency. Ask me again in January of 2019.

Assuming the legislative field is clear for now, the remaining hurdles are as noted the draft environmental impact statement, and the ongoing legal skirmishes regarding whether or not Texas Central qualifies as a “railroad” and thus can exercise eminent domain. I don’t expect anything weird from the DEIS though one never knows. What I really don’t know is what happens if individual landowners can keep TCR away from their property. If they don’t have any legal leverage, I’m not sure how this thing gets built. I’m sure TCR has its best people working on that, so we’ll just have to see how it plays out.

Texas Central releases ridership study

From their website:

A comprehensive ridership study conducted by L.E.K Consulting has confirmed that Texas is ready for a privately developed Bullet Train line serving North Texas, the greater Brazos Valley and The Greater Houston Metro areas. According to this landmark study, 90% of the 16 million people living in the Texas Bullet Train service areas would save at least 1 hour on their journey times as compared to air or road travel. In addition, the overwhelming majority of surveyed Texan Travelers (over 83%) said they would use the Bullet Train in the right circumstances, with only 15% of survey respondents stating they would not consider any alternative but their personal vehicle. Looking further into the study, 71% of frequent travelers, and 49% of non-travelers said they either probably or definitely would use the Texas Bullet Train on their next trip to North Texas or Houston if it were an option today!

Bringing together end-to-end journey time analysis, primary market research on perceptions of high-speed trains, and long distance travel market size estimates, it is possible to develop estimates for future levels of demand for the Texas Bullet Train. Ultimately, the L.E.K study concludes that Bullet Train ridership is anticipated to ramp up to 5 million journeys by the mid 2020’s, and 10 million journeys by 2050. That’s 30% of the anticipated number of long-distance trips between North Texas and The Greater Houston Metro Area.

Here’s the study brochure. The main selling point is that travel times via Texas Central will be predictable and generally an hour or so less than either driving or flying, which includes the time it takes to get to the airport, get through security, get on the plane, and get your luggage afterwards. A large percentage of people they surveyed said they would the service, but then we kind of already knew that. I mean, they wouldn’t be investing all this money to build it if they didn’t have good reason to think that enough people would want to use it to make it profitable.

Here’s the Chron story about this. The main question remains whether Texas Central will ever get to build the thing in the first place.

Earlier this week, Waller County’s sub-regional planning commission – which has already stated its opposition to the train line’s passage through its area – filed a lawsuit in Austin against the Texas Department of Transportation, related to the transportation agency’s refusal to coordinate planning activities related to the line.

TxDOT, under the guidance of the Federal Railroad Administration – which ultimately will approve or deny plans for the line – is the state agency overseeing Texas Central’s environmental plans.

Waller County is claiming its objection and concerns to the line are being ignored, as federal and state officials prepare the environmental review.

“Without meaningful coordination, our community will suffer immediate and irreparable harm and that is totally unacceptable,” Waller County Judge Trey Duhon said in a statement.

The main obstacles at this point remain acquiring the land for the right of way, and whether or not Texas Central can use eminent domain. If they can make it through the next legislative session alive, I like their chances, but that remains a big if. Click2Houston has more.

The southern segment of the proposed Oklahoma City-South Texas passenger rail line

There’s more to it than connecting San Antonio with Austin and Dallas/Fort Worth.

TexasOklahomaPassengerRailStudyRoutes

Two potential South Texas routes were selected for further study, according to [Rep. Henry] Cuellar. The first would originate in San Antonio and travel south outside of existing transportation corridors to a station near the Laredo-Columbia Solidarity Bridge. That route would then cross on a new railway bridge to join a new rail line which would continue to Monterrey, Mexico.

Cuellar said that route would have the potential for high-speed rail service, with trains traveling at speeds of 180 to 220 miles per hour.

The second route would begin in San Antonio and travel southeast to Alice. At Alice, the route would divide into three legs. The first leg would travel to San Diego, Texas and then to the Laredo area. The second leg would travel south along abandoned railroad tracks to McAllen and east to Harlingen and Brownsville, while the third would travel east along the KCS Railway to Corpus Christi.

Once the Tier 1 study is completed, interested developers could conduct a Tier 2 study for preferred routes. That study would provide project-level analyses, detailed design, alignments and cost refinements, Cuellar said.

More than 10 million people currently live along the 850-mile corridor under study. That population is expected to increase nearly 40 percent by 2035.

See here for the background. You can see the different options in the embedded map. The Monterrey option was a later addition to the project scope due to the high-speed possibility, for which private investment is also in play. I’m very interested in seeing how this goes.

Alignments proposed for Oklahoma City-South Texas passenger rail

Check ’em out.

TexasOklahomaPassengerRailStudyRoutes

The U.S. Department of Transportation’s (DOT) Federal Railroad Administration (FRA) and the Texas Department of Transportation (TxDOT) have released 10 service and route options for new and improved conventional and high-speed passenger rail service connecting Oklahoma City, Fort Worth, Austin, San Antonio, and South Texas.  The options are evaluated in a Draft Environmental Impact Statement (DEIS).

“This corridor is home to major financial, energy, and education centers that people rely on every day,” said U.S. Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx.  “Providing efficient, more reliable, and faster higher-speed passenger rail options to move between cities is crucial for the economy and the population to thrive.  I encourage those along the I-35 corridor to participate in the comment and public hearing opportunities so that they are able to learn more and share their input.”

During a 45-day public comment period, FRA and TxDOT will take comments on the 10 options and the seven recommended preferred options that the two agencies identified.  Four public hearings will also be held to give residents a chance to learn about the Texas-Oklahoma Passenger Rail Study, understand how their communities may be affected, and provide comments.

Current passenger rail service along the Interstate 35 (I-35) corridor includes three intercity Amtrak services from Oklahoma City to Fort Worth (Heartland Flyer), Fort Worth to San Antonio (Texas Eagle), and Los Angeles to New Orleans through San Antonio (Sunset Limited).

The DEIS addresses the relationships of the major regional markets within the Texas-Oklahoma Passenger Rail Program corridor in three geographic sections, and preferred alternatives are recommended for each geographic section separately.  The three sections of study are:

  • Northern Section:  Edmond, Oklahoma, to Dallas and Fort Worth, Texas
  • Central Section:  Dallas and Fort Worth to San Antonio
  • Southern Section:  San Antonio to south Texas (Corpus Christi, Brownsville, Laredo, and the Rio Grande Valley)

More than 10 million people currently live along the 850-mile corridor, which is expected to grow by 39 percent in Texas and 25 percent in Oklahoma City by 2035.  As a state with some of the largest metropolitan areas in the nation, spread out over hundreds of miles, Texas is now in high demand for alternative modes of transportation.  Since the majority of the state’s population is centered in the eastern half of state, along I-35 stretching into Oklahoma City, the highways have experienced increased congestion.

“More passenger rail service will help relieve already congested roads along the I-35 corridor and help this region manage the significant population growth on the way,” said FRA Administrator Sarah E. Feinberg.  “I encourage everyone to provide feedback on the 10 options that FRA and the Texas DOT have presented to continue moving this effort forward.”

In fiscal year 2012, FRA awarded a $5.6 million grant to TxDOT to fund a study of new and improved passenger rail service to meet future intercity travel demand, improve rail facilities, reduce travel times, and improve connections with regional public transit services as an alternative to bus, plane, and private auto travel.  The Texas-Oklahoma Passenger Rail Study evaluates routes and types of service for passenger rail service between Oklahoma City, Dallas, Austin, San Antonio, and South Texas.

More information about the Texas-Oklahoma Passenger Rail Study can be found here.  The Final EIS is projected to be released by early 2017.

There are three public hearings scheduled to discuss these alignments, on August 9, 10, and 11, in Laredo, Austin, and Arlington, respectively. Relevant documentation is here if you have a few hours to spare and an enjoyment of poring over PDFs, while TxDOT’s page on the project is here. Just looking at the map, which I have embedded above, doesn’t give a clear picture of where the tracks would be. Streetsblog says it wouldn’t actually stop in “urban Austin”, but the map seems to indicate it would go near or by the airport, so perhaps this is a question of terminology.

This project has been kicking around for awhile – Oklahoma got a federal stimulus grant in 2009 to study rail between Oklahoma City and Tulsa, which isn’t actually part of this proposal but may have been the genesis of what we now have – with TxDOT creating the Texas-Oklahoma Passenger Rail Study page in late 2013; as you can see at that link, there’s a separate project to link this rail line, if it happens, to the Houston-Dallas high speed line, if that happens. An extension into Mexico has also been floated, though I have no idea if we’re even allowed to say that sort of thing out loud any more. As this is a TxDOT project, one presumes that there won’t be any questions about whether or not this qualifies as a real railroad for eminent domain purposes, which is not to say that there won’t be any resistance to the possibility. I’m never sure how seriously to take this, as TxDOT has never been all that interested in anything but roads and there are plenty of ways for the chuckleheads in Congress and the Lege to put up obstacles, but we are at the DEIS stage, and that’s progress. What do you think? See here for the impact statement, and KVUE has more.

High speed rail opponents pick up another Congressional ally

Welcome aboard, Smokey Joe.

In a filing with the Surface Transportation Board, North Texas Congressman Joe Barton (R) Arlington has come out against a high speed rail project between Dallas and Houston.

Barton, whose district encompasses parts of Tarrant County and the city of Arlington that supports Texas Central Railway’s high speed rail line, claims that Ellis and Navarro counties in his district will be dissected.

Barton, who in the filing dated May 9, 2016 said that while he generally supports private investment in high speed rail projects, voiced that the project would not be economically feasible or necessary. He claims that inexpensive air travel is available between Dallas and Houston and there are few delays on I-45 between the two major regions.

In his letter to the STB Congressman Barton said that county and state roads would be closed off if the rail line is built and that few jobs would be created in construction of the 240 mile rail line.

“Congressman Barton obviously has been getting bad information from his staff on this project because the Texas Central website has a whole different story,” according to Texas Rail Advocates President Peter LeCody. “It’s a shame that a Congressman who champions private investment would be so misinformed.”

You can see Barton’s letter here. Barton is not the first member of Congress to come out against the high speed rail line; Rep. Kevin Brady was already there. And if you’re wondering what the Surface Transportation Board is, there you go.

Barton’s letter came a couple of days after TCR formally asked the STB to get involved.

Developers of Texas’ high-speed train have asked the federal Surface Transportation Board (STB) to confirm it has oversight of the project, bringing it in line with the nation’s other major passenger and freight railroads.

Texas Central recently filed a formal petition to the STB, asking that the agency affirm its jurisdiction over the project and to weigh in on critical next steps that will include construction and operation of the passenger link between North Texas and Houston, with a midway stop in the Brazos Valley.

Texas Central is required to seek STB certification of the project, thus complying with the federal regulatory process that all newly constructed rail lines must follow. Links here and here to the two STB filings.

This request does not seek to remove protections afforded to landowners under Texas law. It merely clarifies the STB procedures that Texas Central must follow and does not change or override any state landowner protections.

The STB will not issue a final decision until the environmental review is completed but Texas Central asked the board to issue an interim order as soon as practicable.

[…]

The STB requires a project to outline its goals and objectives so that the agency can consider its role. Texas Central’s petition explains that Texas high-speed rail meets the conditions needed to gain STB jurisdiction, similar to other passenger and freight railroads in the country. Among the factors supporting Texas Central:

* It is a transportation infrastructure project of national importance, providing “a safe, reliable, convenient and environmentally friendly travel option.”

* The Texas route – between two major commercial hubs – fills a gap in existing passenger service and significantly adds to the country’s general passenger railway network.

* Its planned passenger stations – in Dallas, Houston and Grimes County – are designed to enhance local and interstate transportation connections.

A draft environmental impact statement from the FRA, which began work on that last year, is expected this summer. There will be more hearings on the proposed routes after that, with construction aimed to begin in late 2017, although Texas Central has suggested the timeline may slip into 2018. Assuming this happens at all, which if the opponents keep piling up powerful allies may be in doubt. I’m still mostly optimistic, but there sure are a lot of obstacles out there, and in the end it may only take one.

Japan rules, please

The people behind the proposed high-speed rail line in Texas would like for it to be built under the same rules as existing Japanese high-speed rail lines.

Railway operator JR Tokai and an American partner will petition federal regulators to set new rules allowing an ultrahigh-speed line here to be built to Japanese bullet train specifications.

The roughly 400km line connecting Dallas and Houston would meet the same standards used by the Tokaido Shinkansen running between Tokyo and Osaka. That line is operated by JR Tokai, formally known as Central Japan Railway. A three- to four-hour trip by car between the two cities in Texas would take less than 90 minutes on shinkansen bullet trains with a top speed of 320kph.

Texas Central Partners, the company steering the enterprise, is plotting out the route and wooing investors. JR Tokai will set up a unit by year-end to lend the project technical support.

In the U.S., high-speed trains use the same tracks as freight cars and conventional passenger trains. There are no dedicated tracks for high-speed service. Regulations mandate strong, heavy rail cars to minimize casualties from collisions.

But the Tokaido Shinkansen has no railroad crossings, and centralized traffic control with an automatic braking system further reduces the odds of a collision. So its cars can be built lighter, enabling higher speeds and easing the impact on the environment.

Texas Central Partners and JR Tokai will formally request as early as April that the Federal Railroad Administration issue the new rules. Both companies had been talking with the agency behind the scenes. Texas Central Partners hopes to begin construction in 2017 pending the new regulations and separate environmental assessments, with an aim to launch service in 2021.

Seems reasonable to me. There isn’t an existing model for this in the US, so I don’t know how likely this is or how difficult it will be to get these new rules. Bureaucracy can be a strange thing, and as we know this sort of request won’t happen in a vacuum. The various opponents of the project will surely try to get this request denied. So who knows what will happen. With a favorable ruling, I’d assume Texas Central will remain on schedule to begin building in 2017 and running in 2021. Without it, we’ll just have to see.

Everybody wants in on the rail action

We’re like a magical land of opportunity for high-speed rail interests.

For more than three years, Japanese-backed Texas Central Partners has drawn attention with its plans to develop a Dallas-Houston bullet train. While that project is furthest along, French and Chinese rail interests are more quietly discussing the prospects for rail projects with state and local officials.

“There comes a time when adding lanes is not a solution anymore, and that’s when you realize you need more public transportation,” said Alain Leray, president of SNCF America, the U.S. subsidiary of French rail operator SNCF. The company has been talking with Texas officials in earnest for about a year about potential rail projects, Leray said.

Chinese-backed rail interests have also approached some transportation officials in Texas about future projects, several transportation officials confirmed.

[…]

If passenger rail projects take off in Texas, many international firms will be logical partners, said Michael Morris, transportation director for the North Central Texas Council of Governments.

“The people you want to talk to are the people with extensive experience with high-speed rail,” Morris said. “High-speed rail isn’t built in our country, so most of the people with experience in high-speed rail are from other countries.”

Morris has heard from foreign rail firms for years, but solicitations have picked up over the last 12 months, he said, as state and federal studies of the environmental impact of rail projects in Texas have moved forward. The Federal Railroad Administration is studying Texas Central’s proposed Houston-Dallas project and the Texas Department of Transportation is studying the prospects of passenger rail as far north as Oklahoma City and as far south as Monterrey.

“Everyone in the world knows you can’t complete anything without an environmental clearance,” Morris said.

Ross Milloy, executive director of the Lone Star Rail District, which is trying to build a passenger rail line between Austin and San Antonio, said he has also noticed increased interest from international rail firms over the last year and a half.

“I think they view Texas as fertile ground,” Milloy said.

[…]

Just because multiple international firms are looking at Texas doesn’t mean they’ll all work together. Leray said he has talked to officials about the importance of developing a robust high-speed rail network in Texas, rather than just the Dallas-Houston segment. Among the concerns he raised in a Texas Tribune interview is that Texas Central’s line would be built specifically for Shinkansen trains and wouldn’t be able to accommodate other trains. SNCF operates rail systems in Europe that support trains by multiple manufacturers.

“If you choose a system which is not technologically neutral, you’re locking the people of Texas into being served by a monopoly,” Leray said. “And I ask, is this what the people of Texas want?”

In response, Keith pointed to the Shinsaken’s safety record — no collisions or derailments in more than 50 years of operation.

“By operating a single train technology, signaling and core operating system, Texas Central can leverage the history and record of the high-speed rail experience in Japan to ensure the safe, predictable operation of its trains,” Keith said.

[…]

Beyond Texas Central Partners’ Dallas-Houston line, the project appearing to draw the most interest is a rail line between Dallas and Fort Worth. TxDOT created a special commission last year to look at the prospects for such a project. Bill Meadows, chairman of that commission, said the assumption is that such a project would develop with a private partner.

“The state doesn’t want to be in the high-speed rail business,” Meadows said. “There’s enough private sector and regional interest that I see it moving forward in that fashion.”

The Dallas-Fort Worth line has outsized importance, Meadows argued, because it could someday connect a Dallas-Houston line with a train that travels along the state’s crowded I-35 corridor to Austin and San Antonio.

“It is the linchpin that ties the two corridors together,” Meadows said.

Didn’t know there was a fight over what kind of train technology to use on the line. When the lobbyists start getting involved, that’s when you know it’s gotten real. I don’t have anything to add, I’m just glad to see all this action. The Press and Paradise in Hell have more.

The FRA releases its alignment analysis for the high speed rail line

There will be no downtown Houston station, that much is for sure.

The area around U.S. 290 and Loop 610, anchored by Northwest Mall, is likely to be the end of the line for a proposed Houston-to-Dallas high speed passenger train.

The Federal Railroad Administration has eliminated from consideration both of the paths that would have carried the trains to Houston’s central business district. The agency is overseeing environmental approvals for the multi-billion-dollar line proposed by Texas Central Partners.

The decision essentially gives Texas Central “our target landing zone,” CEO Tim Keith said, although the company still must procure numerous federal approvals, hold public meetings, raise money and acquire land before construction could begin.

[…]

Keith said the decision not to bring the line downtown keeps the project within its $10 billion to $12 billion cost estimate.

“Serving downtown Houston directly would require significant community impact and significant cost,” Keith said.

Federal officials eliminated options for a downtown connection because the each of the two proposed paths had numerous areas of concern. Both would have resulted in environmentally-significant damage to the Heights Boulevard Esplanade – part of a national historic district – and Cottage Grove Park west of T.C. Jester.

[…]

A decision about where the line would end changes many of the conversations with local officials, Keith said.

“We’re focusing on getting passengers into the (central business district) and allowing us to engage in those discussions with the various entities we can partner with,” Keith said.

The discussions will likely include the Metropolitan Transit Authority, which is planning some projects around Loop 610 and U.S. 290. Metro board member Jim Robinson said Metro officials have suggested the private high-speed rail firm help to pay for a Metro light rail extension to the area.

“They could extend light rail for a fraction of (the high-speed rail cost) and that would certainly better serve their business model,” Robinson said. “I think we should absolutely partner with them.”

Keith said no conversations about Texas Central funding other improvements have taken place.

“We are going to work hard to get something to maximize connectivity,” he said.

You can see a copy of the FRA report here; it’s not exactly light reading, but go for it. The Dallas end of the line is still a work in progress, but the list is short. The idea of HSR-to-light-rail has come up before, though apparently not in a way that Texas Central will officially comment on just yet. I think that would be a win all around, and would add connectivity to the Uptown BRT line, assuming it doesn’t get derailed. It’s mostly a question of how to make the finances work. I do hope Metro pursues this; since everything comes down to the Mayoral runoff these days, I’d be more confident about a Metro board appointed by Sylvester Turner taking that on than I would with a Bill King board. Be that as it may, this doesn’t get real till construction starts, in 2017 if all goes as planned. There’s still time for the Lege to interfere as well, so while this is another step down the path, the finish line is still a long way away. The Press has more.

Checking in on Texas Central

It’s still going.

The private firm hoping to build a high-speed rail line between Dallas and Houston has been celebrating a summer of successes: completing a successful round of fundraising, seeing a key federal study move forward, surviving the legislative session unscathed.

But three years after Texas Central Partners first revealed its ambitious venture, a series of financial, logistical and political challenges remain. To Kyle Workman, president of Texans Against High-Speed Rail, those challenges are enough to make him question whether construction on the project will ever begin.

“Frankly, they’re on a salvage mission,” Workman said of Texas Central executives. “They’re trying to generate news that says, ‘We think we’re close.’ The reality is, they’re not that close.”

Yet Tim Keith, who has served as Texas Central’s CEO for just more than a month, said the project is moving forward as planned and is more or less on schedule.

“I think my biggest challenge is conveying an abstract idea to Texans,” Keith said. “We are firmly committed to doing everything in our control and power to be selling tickets beginning in 2021.”

[…]

While many Houston- and Dallas-area officials have backed the project, officials in communities in between have mostly come out against it. Statewide officials have largely avoided taking a position.

“I want to see transportation needs satisfied,” Texas Gov. Greg Abbott said when asked about the bullet train at a June press conference in Dallas.

Though he didn’t make clear whether he supports the bullet train, Abbott touched on the two issues that drew concerns from the Legislature this year. He said he aimed to ensure that the project neither spent any public tax dollars nor infringed on private property rights.

“As this process moves along, I will diligently work to ensure that both of those criteria are satisfied,” Abbott said.

Yes, for all the jockeying that various legislators and local officials have done, the statewides have been pretty quiet about Texas Central. Normally, a business that plans to invest billions in Texas would be catnip for Abbott and Dan Patrick and so on, but the politics here are more complex than that. My guess is that they will jump on the bandwagon of whichever side prevails, right around the point at which it becomes clear which side will win.

The Federal Railroad Administration launched an environmental review of the project in 2014. Last month, the railroad administration narrowed its focus for the train route to a “utility corridor,” which is reserved for high-voltage electric transmission lines. Any route within that corridor would likely involve the train crossing some private land.

Keith, who joined Texas Central as CEO in July, said he is hopeful the railroad administration will offer tentative approval for a route within the corridor this fall and that the company would be able to quickly follow with discussions with affected landowners. A railroad administration spokesman declined to comment.

Major infrastructure projects hit a turning point when people can study specific routes, said Robert Puentes, director of the Metropolitan Infrastructure Initiative at the Brookings Institution in Washington, D.C.

“It’s easy to oppose or support something in the abstract,” Puentes said. “When you start really thinking about the details of where the construction happens and how it interacts with the existing land and the existing users, it becomes much more real.”

[…]

Company officials are expected to formally request next year that the railroad administration agree to waive or tweak various federal regulations. Keith acknowledged the train’s speed is part of the need for regulatory waivers but said so too is the system’s advanced technology, including its signaling and automatic train control system, both of which would be new to the United States. The Shinkansen’s famed record of zero casualties in over 50 years of operation in Japan is likely to play a central role in the company’s argument to federal regulators.

“The approach that this system takes is crash avoidance and that is different from some of the existing regulations for trains currently operating in the U.S.,” Keith said.

I feel pretty confident that Texas Central will pass the environmental review process. I doubt knowing the specifics will cool the ardor of their opponents, so they need to do what they can to avoid making any more enemies, because at some point that just becomes untenable. Looks like we may know something by mid 2016 or so. Paradise in Hell has more.

Feds approve a preferred corridor for the high speed rail line

One more step in the process.

The Federal Railroad Administration announced this month that the general route preferred by the project developer of a high-speed rail line between Dallas and Houston is indeed the best choice.

Known as the “utility corridor,” it runs somewhat along high-voltage electrical transmission lines and capitalizes on relatively straight, existing easements.

“It’s of interest to us because it provides a source of power for our system, is straighter for a larger portion and therefore more suitable for the engineering,” said Tim Keith, chief executive of Texas Central Partners, the developer.

The utility easement runs only to about Palmer in Ellis County. Between Dallas’ Union Station and the Trinity River, the path follows a railroad corridor.

The federal report issued Aug. 10 does not outline a specific route but a broad path with many possible alignments. Corridor choices were wide swaths. Elements of each could still make it into the final plan.

“There’s not a whole lot of clarity even with the declaration of the corridor,” said Kyle Workman, president of Texans Against High Speed Rail.

But Texas Central Partners says it’s enough of a definition to host open houses in towns along the line.

“As we identify that final alignment, we will know which parcels are effective and which landowners we will engage with,” Keith said.

See here for the background. It’s a little hard to tell from the picture I have embedded above, even if you click on it for the larger image, but if you look at the picture in this Houston Business Journal story, it’s the gold-colored line, not the red one. as to what actually happened, the Press dug a little deeper:

Basically, what happened is that Texas Central agreed to fund the environmental impact study, but the FRA is the one actually conducting said study. The FRA had simply reviewed the four proposed corridors for the bullet train. Texas Central had concluded that three of the four corridors were not viable options for various reasons, but the fourth corridor, which will run along or nearby high-tension utility lines, met the company’s criteria.

So yeah, two weeks ago the FRA posted a report stating that it had checked Texas Central’s information and reported that it was accurate and that Texas Central’s preferred line was the one option of four submitted that fit various criteria. But that doesn’t exactly mean the FRA approved anything. Now the FRA will simply continue with its environmental impact study of Texas Central’s proposed route. Agency reviewers are set to look at alignments, meaning they’ll consider the specific route instead of a broad swath of land — such as scouting specific locations and property near nearby the proposed line, along with tackling right-of-way issues. When you get to the alignments stage you have to know exactly where things will be in a fairly precise way, according to the FRA staffer. Texas Central is responsible for doing the proposals and approaching landowners and the FRA is responsible for reviewing these options and figuring out the best options and alternatives.

Once the alignment study is done, the FRA will finish up its environmental impact study – there’s months of work to do so it won’t be completed until next year at the earliest. Then there will be meetings and feedback and the FRA will issue it’s findings.

So, to sum it all up: The FRA didn’t so much approve the utility route as a corridor as it agreed that based on Texas Central’s work, and information reviewed by the FRA, that they would take Texas Central’s word that the utility corridor was the most viable option. Also, this happened two weeks ago. Also, Texas Central reps don’t seem to know when it actually happened.

Got all that? The utility corridor is preferred because the freight rail corridor has too many curves to accommodate the speed of the bullet train, and because there were issues in sharing tracks. Some of that will still need to be done under this alignment, as the utility corridor doesn’t run all the way to Dallas, but this will minimize that. Either way, the Houston end of the corridor is currently northwest of downtown, near 610 and 290. Whether the train continues into downtown or the terminal is built there – assuming all of the political opposition is overcome, of course – remains an open question, one that I hope the Mayoral candidates have given at least a passing thought to. Be that as it may, the next step in the process is the draft environmental impact statement. According to the Chron story, that’s about halfway done, though as noted above it’s still months away. That’s the point at which things start to get real.

Another group against the high-speed rail line

From up north.

A high-speed rail stop sounded like just the type of shot in the arm Ellis County needed. Development would flock to the station and, with a quick link to both Dallas and Houston, immediately make the county a much more attractive place for a high-powered company to do business. “We went, ‘Hey, this is great! High-speed rail!’” [instigator Marty] Hiles recalls thinking as he walked into a public meeting last year in Waxahachie with officials from Texas Central, TxDOT, and the Federal Railroad Administration. Then, they saw the plans and realized that there would be no local stop; for the train, Ellis County would be flyover country. “We walked away stunned,” Hiles says. “Just completely stunned. It was obvious there was nothing, no benefit at all.”

From that point forward Hiles and his group, which they dubbed Texas Concerned Citizens, shifted their energies from promoting economic development to killing high-speed rail — objectives that in their mind are one and the same. Texas Central, which has settled on a single preferred “utility corridor” route that shadows high-voltage power lines, maintains publicly that the line’s design will include as many underpasses as needed to accommodate the free flow of goods, wildlife and farm equipment, minimizing any negative impact, but Hiles and many others in Ellis County are skeptical. To turn a profit, the company will need to minimize capital costs; since elevating the tracks to allow traffic to pass underneath is more expensive than the default design of an impassable 14-foot berm closed in by a security fence, the residents fear that Texas Central will build as few elevated sections tracks as it can get away with. The most immediate impact will be on farmers, who, Hiles says, contribute $160 million to the Ellis County economy.

[…]

Hiles was on the brink of despair when, talking to Texas Central opponents near Houston, he learned of an obscure provision of state law enabling municipal and county governments to band together in “sub-regional planning commissions” that have the legal standing of state agencies. Essentially, Hiles learned, the law gave commissions the power to force Texas Central and TxDOT to sit down at the negotiating table to talk as equals. Several of the commissions had been formed to stop the Trans-Texas Corridor, a massive conglomeration of toll roads, rails and utility lines proposed just over a decade ago by then-Governor Rick Perry, and claimed at least partial credit for the project’s demise.

Hiles pitched the idea to the city councils of Palmer (population 2,000), Ferris (2,436), and Ennis (18,513), all of which are in or near the rail’s path. Each readily passed a resolution agreeing to join the Community Development Sub-Regional Planning Commission. “We’re just trying to be recognized,” says Palmer Mayor Kenneth Bateman, the owner of Bug Out Pest Control. “Doing what we’ve done is supposed to give us a voice as to what’s going around in our town.” Ennis Mayor Russell Thomas says the goal “is to force full disclosure. When you do that [form a sub-regional planning commission], then they are bound to actually have to show you what the plans
and details actually are.”

The commission has had one meeting so far. “We’re just beginning to assert our authority,” Hiles says. “The big fear a lot of the people have is … they’re either going to ignore us — if they do we’re going to go to the DA, say look we’re a state agency and they’re not working with us. We’ll force it if we have to. Or they might turn around and really start harassing us and sic the dogs on us, and that’s why I’m trying to find a good attorney who will cover us pro bono. Because if they come after us, I’m not ready to quit. We’ve all put our life and fortunes, like the Founding Fathers, really, on the line here because we’re trying to protect what we have.”

Basically, they’re doing what the folks in Montgomery County and Magnolia have done. As the story notes, there are questions about what actual authority these groups have – as is often the case with the Legislature, the intent of the law in question is unclear, and no one has ever done anything like this before. Be that as it may, it is a way for opponents to get together and bring in other communities, especially ones that may not have given the matter much thought before. Numbers matter, whatever the form of the organization. Texas Central Railway needs to take this seriously, or they could find that the strength of the opposition in the Lege in 2017 is bigger than they can handle.

Texas Central Railway gets some initial funding

They’ll need more than this, but it’s a start.

Texas Central Partners, which aims to build a bullet train between Texas’ two biggest cities, announced Wednesday they had raised $75 million in private investments in the company’s first round of fundraising.

That funds are intended to allow the ambitious $10 billion project to move forward from feasibility studies to development planning.

The company also hired a new CEO: Tim Keith, former CEO of RREEF/Deutsche Bank Infrastructure Investments.

“It’s an enormous boost for the project. The first capital to raise is the hardest to raise,” he said in an interview. “It’s a terrific day for me but it’s a historic day for the project and for Houston.”

[…]

The funds will help move to the second phase: development planning. Keith said the $75 million will be used to wrap up the environmental study, work with federal authorities to settle on rules for high-speed rail in Texas, grow the company with key hires, expand its consulting base and sponsor more ridership studies.

[…]

The $75 million raised is more than the company sought for the first round of investments.

While it allows the project to move forward, the funds are small change compared to the final $10 billion price tag. Keith says the rest will come through big private investment from private equity funds, large pension funds and large real estate and asset investors.

“It’s a big project, it’s a big idea, it has a big cost to build, but it will deliver lots of benefits to the state,” Keith said.

Glad to hear it. There’s still a long way to go and a lot of obstacles to clear, however.

Keith and his company have plenty of obstacles to overcome before the project becomes a reality. State and federal authorities are still evaluating the line. And organized opposition from rural Texans who farm and live in the large expanse between Dallas and Houston that nearly derailed the project during this year’s legislative session has not died down.

Many landowners oppose the fact that Texas Central is allowed to use eminent domain for the project. Company officials say they plan to work with residents and will only use eminent domain as a last resort, when a land deal simply can’t be reached.

But Kyle Workman, president of Texans Against High Speed Rail, said that eminent domain will have to be used in most cases.

“Because nobody wants to sell their land,” he said.

Remember, the opponents are still organizing even with the Lege not in session. TCR is going to need to make all the gains it can before 2017, to make it that much harder to put up obstacles for them. We’ll see how far this takes them.

Texas Central chooses a corridor

We have a single preferred route for the Houston to Dallas high speed rail line.

Texas Central High-Speed Railway (TCR) today informed the Federal Railroad Administration (FRA) that it recommends narrowing the consideration of potential high-speed rail corridors between Houston and Dallas to a single preferred corridor known generally as the Utility Corridor. TCR has concluded the Utility Corridor is best suited to satisfy the goals of the project to provide reliable, safe and economically viable high-speed rail service between Dallas and Houston using the N700-I Bullet System technology.

TCR has spent several years identifying potential corridors for high-speed rail service between Dallas and Houston. To that end, TCR expended significant effort looking for solutions to engineering, construction and economic challenges associated with building high-speed rail in or along the existing Freight Corridor, and believes the Utility Corridor to be the superior alternative. Additionally, as TCR examines the various alternative alignments, one of the company’s goals is to reduce the project’s impact on communities and landowners to the extent practicable by using existing rights of way. TCR will recommend inclusion of an alternative involving the I-10 corridor as a potential approach to downtown Houston and looks forward to working with the City of Houston to evaluate this option.

TCR will now focus on potential alternatives keyed to the Utility Corridor that meet the business, environmental and connectivity priorities of the project and will submit additional information to the FRA for further detailed analysis during subsequent phases of the environmental review process.

As the Dallas Transportation Blog notes, that’s the orange line on the embedded map. The TCR announcement page also has some quotes from Houston-area elected officials, including Mayor Parker, lauding the inclusion of a possible I-10 corridor approach to downtown. That may make some critics here a bit happier, as they had been agitating for TCR to not run through Inner Loop neighborhoods – see this press release I got from the Oak Forest Homeowners Association the other day for an example – though it won’t do anything to deter the more organized opponents; see this post on the No Texas Central Facebook page to see an example of that. If nothing else, this would seem to ensure that there’s no Woodlands station in the cards, not that this was likely once Montgomery County got on board with the opposition. Whether this blunts the resistance or fires it up more remains to be seen.

The Chron fills in some details.

The preferred route would use land along the BNSF right of way parallel to Hempstead Highway, turning near Loop 610 and U.S. 290.

From there, Texas Central is changing its focus to an alignment through commercial areas around U.S. 290 and Loop 610. Elevated tracks would run along Interstate 10 to access downtown, said Robert Eckels, a former Harris County judge and president of Texas Central.

“That would take us out of the residential areas, so we are going to seriously look at that as an option,” Eckels said.

Originally, the proposal followed Union Pacific tracks along Washington into downtown Houston.

[…]

Eckels said officials are working on all of the concerns, hoping to avoid as many as possible.

“There is still a process you go through with the FRA,” he said. “We are trying to respond to the comments we have received.”

A draft environmental analysis, expected to be distributed publicly later this year, will have much more detail on the exact route. Eckels said many changes remain likely.

“Not everyone is going to be happy, but we can address many of the concerns,” he said.

Texas Central remains focused on bringing the trains downtown, if possible, and not stopping short of the central business district, Eckels said.

For a better view of what this might look like for the Houston area, see Swamplot, which zooms in on the map and highlights the possible station locations. I’ll be very interested to see what that draft environmental analysis looks like. I’m not exactly sure what an I-10 corridor would look like in this context, as there doesn’t appear to be an obvious place for the right of way that would be needed. As there are likely to be more changes coming, so are there more questions to be answered. The Trib has more.

Opposition to the high speed rail line gets organized

You had to figure something like this was coming. I was recently informed of NoTexasCentral.com, and I’ll let them introduce themselves:

Texas Central Railway (TCR), a Japanese funded Texas-based private railroad company, is set to build and operate a high speed train system from Dallas to Houston. With stations slated only at the ends of the line, the train will run at over 200 mph through some of Texas’ most beautiful farmland, marring the landscape and tranquility of our great state, as well as displacing families and disrupting farming and ranching operations. Closer into the terminating cities, historic neighborhoods and small businesses will be affected in irreparable ways. Property value loss, probable tax hikes to offset lost revenue from lowered property values, property loss, environmental impacts, lack of economic benefit and noise/vibration disruptions will all impact the lives of so many Texans.

We all oppose the current primary and secondary routes being selected by Texas Central Railway. Help us save our homes and farmland from this high speed train by voicing your opposition!

Their Facebook page is here. While rural counties have been resistant to the high speed rail line for some time now, the focal point of the opposition appears to be in Montgomery County, as This story linked from the Facebook page illustrates:

More than 800 people packed the Lone Star Community Center in Montgomery Monday night to learn what they can do to stop a proposed multibillion-dollar high-speed rail route that would cut through West Montgomery County and connect Houston with Dallas.

According to local legislators and county elected officials, the Texas Central Railway, a private company planning the high-speed rail, has the power of eminent domain to make the project happen.

“This is one of the biggest threats to the county I have seen in years,” former Montgomery County Judge Alan B. Sadler told the crowd. “It’s extreme, ladies and gentlemen.”

[…]

“I am not a happy camper,” said state Rep. Will Metcalf, R-Conroe, adding he is frustrated by the lack of transparency on the project. “They are moving forward and we need your help.

“I don’t believe private enterprise should have eminent domain power. In regard to the 10th Amendment, I talked a lot about this during my campaign; we are living it here today. Federal overreach, they are bypassing us at the state, the county, and that is not OK.”

Metcalf urged residents to contact U.S Rep. Kevin Brady, R-The Woodlands, U.S. Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, and U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas.

“When Montgomery County is joined together, we are unstoppable,” Metcalf said.

Precinct 2 Commissioner Charlie Riley told the crowd that even though the project would cut through his precinct, he has not been contacted by TCR about the rail line. He said he is determined to stop the project.

“Whatever we need to do to stay united and stay strong, we will support it to make sure this doesn’t happen,” Riley said.

Precinct 1 Commissioner Mike Meador said while Montgomery County Commissioners Court passed a resolution late last year that it did not support the project, he added it is time for the court to readdress that resolution and “toughen it up.”

I’ve discussed the Montgomery County issues before. At one point, Montgomery County Commissioners Court passed a resolution saying they would oppose any alignment that didn’t include the I-45 corridor. The impression I get now is that the locals there would prefer to try to kill project altogether. They’ve started collecting the support of elected officials to back them up. A story in the Leader News from a couple of weeks ago that as far as I know never appeared online mentioned three State Senators that have signed a letter to TxDOT opposing the use of eminent domain and any state funds for this project – Sen. Lois Kolkhorst was one, Sen. Brandon Creighton was another, and (oops!) I can’t remember the third. There’s a great irony here in that one of the selling points of the TCR approach has been that by not seeking public money for the rail line they can avoid a lot of the political battles and streamline the process. That sure doesn’t appear to be the case any more.

Meanwhile, the Houston-based opposition is still looking for alternate routes.

So what is the alternative? Civic leaders from the neighborhoods under threat from the two proposed routes have joined together to chart a better way forward, seeking solutions that will allow high-speed rail to serve Houston without blighting residential neighborhoods – theirs or anyone else’s. This inter-neighborhood working group has put forward two suggested approaches.

The first is to terminate the line outside Houston’s central business district, at a location such as the Northwest Transit Center, an idea that Texas Central Railroad itself has floated. Unlike many other cities, Houston has multiple commercial centers, and much of the potential ridership here is located west and northwest of downtown. An express bus service or a light-rail line could connect the terminus with downtown; at a public meeting last fall, a METRO spokesperson embraced the idea of providing such a connection. And terminating the high-speed rail line outside the Central Business District would avoid exacerbating traffic and parking problems the way a downtown terminus would, with riders from around the city having to travel downtown to reach it.

Alternatively, if a downtown terminus is deemed necessary, the approach to downtown should be routed not through residential neighborhoods but down highway or industrial corridors. A route along I-45 was one of the routes examined and rejected by the Federal Railroad Administration, but deserves reconsideration. A route along I-10, which Texas Central Railroad representatives have acknowledged as worthy of consideration, should also be investigated as a way to reach central Houston. Several other variations, involving the Hempstead/290 corridor, I-610 North Loop, and/or the Harris County Hardy Toll Road corridor, are worth looking into.

See here for the background. The actual route has not been determined yet, and as this statement from Texas Central, posted on the No Texas Central Facebook page, makes clear, even the two “preferred routes” that have been highlighted so far are really just corridors. We won’t have a clear idea of what we might get until the Federal Railroad Administration posts the scoping report to its website. In the meantime, there’s still a lot of opportunity to affect things. I’ll continue to keep an eye on it.

More concerns about the high speed rail route

Some people who live not far from me are not very happy about the high speed rail line possibly running through their neighborhood.

The prospect of a high-speed train crossing through First Ward into downtown Houston has residents scrambling to weigh in on the proposal.

“I’m completely opposed to this project. I believe we can work collaboratively, but I don’t think the infrastructure of our neighborhood should be destroyed,” says Alexandra Orzeck, whose home is next to existing rail right-of-way eyed as a potential route for Texas Central Railway’s “bullet train” between Houston and Dallas. Property she owns in Rice Military also could be impacted.

Many of her neighbors agreed during a recent meeting to discuss the project with TCR President Robert Eckels, who is a former Harris County judge and state legislator, and David Hagy, the company’s community outreach director.

[…]

Ideally, the train would enter Houston’s central business district and connect riders with other local transit, maybe even other high-speed routes. But the train route might end elsewhere, like on Loop 610 or even further out on Beltway 8, Eckels said. A draft environmental impact statement being devised now by the Federal Railroad Administration and Texas Department of Transportation will factor into those decisions.

[…]

Local neighborhoods are particularly concerned since the rail company would have eminent domain authority to acquire property needed to build the high-speed rail.

Over the past decade, First Ward has enjoyed a residential and artistic renaissance. New, multistory townhomes continue to wedge their way into the neighborhood, which has a recently designated historic district. The well-known Winter Street and Silver Street artist studios helped establish a state Cultural Arts District here. More studios are coming soon.

Stakeholders say one of two preferred routes for the TCR project could bisect the Washington Avenue corridor on existing rail lines, either on Winter Street or Girard, where rail right of way is squeezed to 50 feet in some place. TCR has said it needs 80 feet.

Local leaders hesitate to support the other preferred route, too, because it impacts Near Northside neighborhoods. TCR should continue to investigate a third route that follows the Hardy corridor into downtown, they said.

Similar concerns are expressed in this Leader News story. A route along the Hardy corridor would make a Woodlands station feasible, so the folks here will have at least one set of allies in that quest. As we’ve discussed before, these are the same issues that will have to be dealt with if a commuter rail line moves forward as well. Of course, commuter trains don’t move at 200 MPH, so there’s that. At the very least, you’d want to review the Super Neighborhood 22 transportation master plan from 2010 that called for putting the existing freight rail tracks in that corridor into a trench to avoid at grade street crossings. It should be noted that Tom Dornbusch, one of the architects of that study, doesn’t think trenching would be sufficient to accommodate the high speed line; among other things, the corridor is too narrow, by Texas Central Railway’s own design specs.

Eckels mentions other possible locations for the line’s terminal, but putting it downtown really needs to be the goal. Just from a connectivity perspective, it makes the most sense. If that makes a Woodlands-friendly I-45/Hardy Toll Road approach the best option, then so be it. Someone will need to convince TCR and the state and federal officials of that.

The process of drafting an environmental impact statement will require TCR to respond to concerns including social and cultural impacts.

The process has been extended to Jan. 9. First Ward residents are asking that the railway administration schedule a public meeting in Houston.

That sounds sensible to me. Give everyone who would be affected the chance to have their say.

The Woodlands wants to be on the high speed rail route

Can’t blame ’em.

The Woodlands Township is urging federal and state officials to take another look at the potential benefits of adding a high-speed rail corridor along Interstate 45.

Last month, the Federal Railway Administration and the Texas Department of Transportation revealed two potential routes for a proposed bullet train that could one day connect Dallas and Houston by rail, but neither of the routes under review would come down I-45 in fast-growing Montgomery County.

Miles McKinney, legislative affairs and transportation manager for The Woodlands, said there is still time for it and surrounding communities to have some influence on the direction of the project.

“We’ve taken and written a letter asking them to reinstate the I-45 corridor for consideration and to think about it one more time and at least assess it before condemning it,” he said.

State and federal transportation officials recently narrowed the list of potential routes from nine to two. The excluded lines seemed a bit longer, which could prove more costly for a project that already has a price tag of more than $10 billion.

The route that local leaders wants transportation officials to explore is referred to as the Green Field Route. It would begin in Dallas and travel along I-45, passing through Huntsville and Montgomery County before ending in downtown Houston.

The interstate highway runs the length of Montgomery County, whose population is projected to increase from 500,000 to 1.1 million by 2040.

Given the growth of the area, McKinney said, it may be wise to ask transportation officials leading the project to consider adding a rail station north of Houston, near the Grand Parkway and The Woodlands.

See here for the background, and click the embedded image to see all of the proposed routes. I can’t argue with the logic, and in fact in past conversations I’ve had with the Texas Central Railway folks, I myself have suggested that a Woodlands-area station might make sense for them. The two “recommended” routes were chosen because they were the lowest cost, which is a non-trivial consideration in a $10 billion project. A big complicating factor is how routing the trains along I-45 might effect the cost and feasibility of bringing the trains to downtown Houston, where the terminal ought to be and is most likely to be. One possible route into downtown involves the same corridor as a proposed commuter rail line along 290, which obviously isn’t compatible with a Woodlands-friendly location. I don’t know what the best answer is, and unfortunately not everyone can be accommodated. Good luck figuring it all out.

By the way, the Central Japan Railway Company, one of the backers of Texas Central Railway, recently began test runs of a maglev train that can reach 300 miles per hour. By the time this line is finished, it could provide an even quicker ride between Dallas and Houston. Yeah, I’m excited by the prospect.

Location, location, location

At the first public meeting about the proposed Dallas-Houston high speed railroad line, the main focus was the endpoints.

More than 100 people were in attendance on Tuesday for the first of six public meetings being held jointly by the Federal Railroad Administration (FRA) and the Texas Department of Transportation on Texas Central Railway’s plan. The FRA is leading a federally required environmental impact study of the proposed project, which aims to connect Dallas and Houston in 90 minutes or less with Japanese-manufactured trains traveling at more than 200 miles per hour.

At the meeting, federal officials revealed some details on the leading routes and station locations under consideration, though they said everything was still subject to change.

[…]

Attendees who spoke at the meeting were almost universally focused on where the rail stations will end up. FRA officials did not reveal the exact addresses of station locations but did offer up areas being considered. For both Dallas and Houston, the locations included spots in each city’s downtown as well as some several miles outside of them.

Most speakers stressed an interest in seeing the Dallas station at or near downtown’s Union Station, where it could seamlessly connect with other public transit, including the city’s light rail.

“Union Station is the opportunity for high-speed rail to engage with our area,” Dallas City Councilman Lee Kleinman said.

Ken Dublé of Dallas said putting the station downtown will make more sense if the rail line ends up becoming one piece of a larger system.

“We need to be able to think past Houston and Dallas and think to the day when we’re going to want to extend it to Oklahoma City,” he said.

No Texas Central Railway officials spoke at the meeting, though company officials did speak with attendees and reporters before and after the hearing.

Travis Kelly, the company’s vice president of government relations, said Union Station was likely “too built out” for the train to have its station there, but he added that five other downtown Dallas locations were under review. He said the company considered potential ridership demand a central factor in selecting station locations, but that other issues — such as the company’s ability to develop land around a station — were also playing into its decisions.

Dallas resident Paul Carden stressed the need for the train to go “from downtown to downtown.” If the company ends up choosing a spot too far outside of downtown Houston, he said, he would probably drive or fly instead.

“I’m more concerned about the Houston side than the Dallas side,” Carden said after the meeting. “I hope they don’t underestimate what I think would be induced demand just by having a route that goes to downtown Houston.”

See here for the background. I can’t speak to the Dallas station options, but downtown is the only place that makes sense for the Houston end. It’s centrally located, it’s where a lot of business travelers would want to wind up anyway, and it offers connections via light rail to Midtown, the Medical Center, Rice University, UH, and maybe someday if the Unversities Line ever gets built, to Greenway Plaza and the Galleria/Uptown area. There are also potential commuter rail connections that would extend the network of the Texas Central Railway line even further. Sure, people want to go places other than downtown, but no other place offers all of these benefits for a rail station. It just makes sense. Hair Balls has more.

Time to comment on the proposed high speed rail routes

Check ’em out, and tell ’em what you think.

Observers have long known that only a few options were available for the route of the privately funded high-speed train line between Houston and Dallas. Now a firmer picture of where the trains might run is emerging.

As part of the federally required process to evaluate the line, the Federal Railroad Administration and Texas Department of Transportation released maps of the nine routes they are considering and the two chosen for deeper evaluation.

[…]

All follow rights of way of railroads, TxDOT or utilities, which is pretty standard for rail development. Those are the agencies or companies that own long, thin swaths of real estate that are relatively clear. Backers of the train, who are paying for the analysis, would acquire the property.

The route has long had support of elected officials in both metro areas, as well as state transportation leaders.

Looking at the southern end in the Houston area, the real decision — which could quickly get political — is which of the two preferred routes is the top contender. While the BNSF Railway option grabs a lot of Tomball area and then hooks along Loop 610 before coming south, the utility alignment connects with Cypress and follows the crowded U.S. 290 corridor in.

Both routes have also been prime candidates for commuter rail service, which Houston area officials have said would definitely complement any high-speed line, along with local transit.

See here for the background and here for more about those commuter rail proposals, which would be an enticing add-on for this project at some point. There were a total of nine routes proposed, but the embedded image shows the two that were selected for “detailed evaluation” – see here for the other picture. Public meetings begin tonight in Dallas, and continue through October 29 at locations along the potential routes, with the last one on the 29th at the NRG Center beginning with an open house at 4:30. See here for the full schedule and related information. Dallas Transportation and the Star-Telegram have more.

Environmental impact studies can begin for Texas high speed rail

Another step forward.

The Federal Railroad Administration published a document on its website Wednesday officially kicking off a highly anticipated environmental review of a proposed high speed rail line between Dallas and Houston.

The document, called a Notice Of Intent To Prepare An Environmental Impact Statement (EIS), marks the start of a process that will involve public input on Texas Central High-Speed Railway’s ambitious endeavor, which aims to connect travelers between Dallas and Houston in 90 minutes or less. The company has said it plans to operate the country’s fastest and only profitable high-speed rail line without public subsidies. Company officials have been preparing for the federal review for more than a year and have quietly worked on the logistics of it with federal officials in advance, according to people involved in the discussions.

The EIS, which could take more than a year, will examine possible routes for the rail line and how each scenario would impact the region’s environment, including agricultural land, streams, floodplains and wildlife, as well as various federal regulations including the National Historic Preservation Act. The review will also investigate “the potential impacts of stations, power facilities, and maintenance facilities to support HSR operations,” according to the federal notice.

Local entities as well as the public have 90 days to submit written comments on the scope of the EIS to ensure “that all issues are addressed related to this proposal and any significant impacts are identified.”

The doc is here. As you may recall from the light rail process here in Houston, there will be public meetings, in this case organized by TxDOT and held in the affected area, which is more or less the I-45 corridor between Houston and Dallas, to present information about the project and allow for further feedback. This process will take some time and will if all goes well lead to a Draft Environmental Impact Statement, a Final Environmental Statement, and a Record of Decision. How long that takes is at least somewhat proportional to how contentious or smooth the process is.

The Chron had a preview story from the morning before the Notice of Intent was published.

“It is now more than just talk,” said Maureen Crocker, executive director of the Gulf Coast Rail District, which is supportive of passenger rail projects in the Houston area. “When they do this, it’ll give everyone a much clearer idea of what this is going to be, and lay out the plan that so far has been private.”

Robert Eckels, president of Texas Central Railway, the company proposing the line, said in a statement that the notice begins a process, “which, true to our overall philosophy, will be funded with private dollars.”

[…]

Initiation of the environmental process doesn’t lock public or private officials into anything, or set specific deadlines.

“Timelines for these kinds of projects vary widely,” said Mike England, spokesman for the Federal Railroad Administration.

Public agencies, notably the railroad administration and Texas Department of Transportation, must conduct the review – including soliciting public comment and holding meetings in areas affected by the plan.

Crocker said the local rail district currently has a study examining how to bring passenger trains into downtown Houston.

“We’ve kind of kept the high-speed rail line in mind when we’re doing that,” Crocker said.

See here for my previous blogging on this, plus PDiddie and Texas Leftist for reports on a recent meeting some of us bloggers had with the TCR folks. The optimistic time frame for the start of construction is 2016. TCR will undoubtedly have a few wish list items for the Legislature next year as well, mostly to smooth out the state regulatory process, but nothing that is likely to be a big deal. I’ll keep my eyes open for announcement about the public meetings and will let you know when I know more about them. Dallas Transportation has more.

The Mayors love high speed rail

As well they should.

The mayors of Houston, Dallas and Fort Worth announced Thursday their unified support for the construction of a privately funded bullet train between the two metropolitan regions.

“If successful, Houstonians will have a reliable, private alternative that will help alleviate traffic congestion and drastically reduce travel times,” Houston Mayor Annise Parker said at a press conference at Houston City Hall.

Texas Central Railway announced in 2012 its plans to build a 200 mph rail line that would transport passengers between Dallas and Houston within 90 minutes. The company has said it will not require any public subsidies to fund the multi-billion dollar project, which it is developing in partnership with a Japanese firm, Central Japan Railway.

The mayors praised the project and predicted it would aid the state economically and environmentally by reducing the number of people traveling by car.

“Not only will high-speed rail significantly reduce travel times and traffic congestion for Dallas and Houston area residents, but it will also create new, high-paying jobs and stimulate economic growth,” Dallas Mayor Mike Rawlings said.

The endorsements come as the Federal Railroad Commission is “30 to 60 days” away from formally launching an environmental impact study of the project, said Robert Eckels, a former Harris County judge and president of Texas Central Railway. The study, which will be funded by Texas Central Railway, is a critical step on the project’s path to drawing approval from federal regulators.

Mayor Parker’s press release for this is here. As you know, I’ve been following – and a fan of – this project for some time. What’s especially exciting about this is the news that Texas Central Railway will be getting the EIS process started soon, because from there is where it begins to get real. I had the opportunity along with a couple of my blogging colleagues to meet with Eckels and other TCR folks and ask them some questions about the project; PDiddie wrote up some notes from the meeting. I don’t have a whole lot to add to that except to say that you should check out TCR’s latest presentation about the state of their business, and then go look at Eckels’ presentation at a recent HGAC brown bag lunch, which is on YouTube. It’s an exciting time. Dallas Transportation and Texas Leftist have more.

Federal studies for the Houston-Dallas high speed rail line

It’s a step forward.

The federal government, Texas and a private company are collectively working on two studies to assess the impact of a high-speed rail line between Houston and Dallas, U.S. Department of Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx confirmed Tuesday.

Foxx, speaking at the Texas Transportation Forum, an annual conference put on by the Texas Department of Transportation, said the Federal Railroad Administration, TxDOT and Texas Central High-Speed Railway will move forward this year on environmental impact studies related to the project. The completion of such a study is typically a key early step in developing a major transportation project.

“I can’t speak to whether there will be roadblocks or anything down the road, but what I can tell you is I’m delighted to be part of helping get this first step underway,” Foxx said in an interview after his speech. “It’s a big deal for Texas, and we’ll see what happens going forward.”

[…]

TxDOT Executive Director Phil Wilson said two separate environmental impact studies are in development. The Federal Railroad Administration and Texas Central High-Speed Railway will conduct a study of a high-speed rail line between Dallas and Houston. TxDOT, in partnership with the FRA, will sponsor a study of a slower rail line connecting Fort Worth, Arlington and Dallas.

“We, TxDOT, will sponsor the environmental impact study on the Dallas-Fort Worth-Arlington side,” Wilson said. “The private sector will sponsor the EIS for that Houston/Dallas corridor.”

TxDOT officials could not provide a timeline for when either study would be completed.

See here, here, and here for the background. As Dallas Transportation notes, there have been other studies done in the past five years, and TxDOT is doing its own study on a Texas-Oklahoma rail corridor, which would likely be an extension of Houston to Dallas. The Texas Central High-Speed Railway folks are serious about getting their line built, hopefully by 2021. There are many hurdles to be cleared, and this is just one of them along the way. If you want to hear more about it, you can hear Robert Eckels, the President of Texas Central Railway, will be speaking at an H-GAC brown bag event on Monday, January 20. See here for the details.

Get ready to hear more about Texas high speed rail

I for one can’t wait.

Texas Central High-Speed Railway has spent the last few years privately — very privately — looking at how to connect Dallas-Fort Worth and Houston with a bullet train moving upwards of 200 miles per hour. But soon, they say, those private plans will become quite public when they issue a notice of intent. That in turn will trigger an environmental impact statement evaluating the would-be, could-be rail alignment and the proposed stops between here and down there.

“It’s almost like jumping out of the frying pan into another frying pan when the public process starts,” says Travis Kelly, the director at Texas Central High-Speed Railway tasked with handling the marketing.

Kelly says the private operator — a consortium that also includes Central Japan Railway Company — hopes to reveal its preferred and alternative alignments this summer. At least, he says, “That’s when we expect to be ready.” But it’s also up to the Federal Railroad Administration, which will oversee the project — even though it’s not funding it. There also needs to be a determination of “which state agencies will play a role” in the line, he says, referring, of course, to at least the Texas Department of Transportation, which also hopes to see high-speed rail travel between Houston and the DFW.

Kelly says Texas Central High-Speed Railway got on board with DFW-Houston long before TxDOT applied for its federal grant. He says the group studied 97 city pairs throughout the U.S. Some, he acknowledges, would generate higher ridership than the Texas route. And some, he says, would have been cheaper to build.

“But we saw a significant need for high-speed rail in the state,” he says. “You have two large metropolitan areas on either end of a flat undeveloped piece of the state and no legacy carrier, and we saw a good opportunity to fulfill a need and make a profit. I wouldn’t say we’re doing it because TxDOT can’t … but Dallas-Houston was right in that sweet spot where we thought we could build it cheap enough and pay off construction costs over time. We talk frequently about our model not being one-size-fits-all. We think this approach is custom-made for Texas.”

[…]

And, finally, The Big Question: Is Southwest Airlines standing in the way of the bullet train as it did in 1991, when the Texas TGV Consortium tried to tie together Dallas, Houston, Austin and San Antonio only to run into the Love Field carrier’s giant fist clenching a fat wallet?

“We’ve briefed them,” Kelly says. “We haven’t tried to hide from them. But we have been observing the changes in the aviation market in the state over the last 15 years, and the distance between Dallas and Houston is such that a lot of business travelers have decided not to fool with security and just drive. More people drive than used to. We don’t feel like it’s as much a head-to-head with the airline. The state is growing in such a way that there’s plenty of market for both us and Southwest. To date they’ve been neutral on the project, as far as their last statement, which is an upgrade form where they were 20 years ago.”

See here for the last update I had on this particular rail project, which is not the only one being studied in Texas. I think the last paragraph above is the key to understanding why this sort of thing seems to finally be getting some traction. Air travel is increasingly expensive and a hassle; by the time you factor in getting to the terminal and going through security, the total time for a short hope such as Houston to Dallas is comparable to driving. Or at least, it would be comparable under conditions of no traffic or construction, and what are the odds of that? Put it all together, and taking a train to and from more-convenient central city locations starts to look pretty appealing. Cheaper than flying, faster than driving, less stressful than either – what’s not to like? Despite all that it’s still a bit hard to believe that it’s actually happening, since we’ve been hearing about high speed rail in Texas since about five minutes after the ink on the first draft of the state constitution was dry, but here we are. We’ll be able to see for ourselves what this might look like very soon.

New passenger rail study

We’ll see if this goes anywhere.

The Texas Department of Transportation is launching a two-year, $14 million study of passenger rail service between South Texas and Oklahoma City.

That could mean bringing high-speed rail or, at the least, finding ways to connect the state’s major cities with some type of rail service.

The study also will examine how to fund these projects, which could involve the private sector.

The overall goal is to reduce congestion in Texas, officials said.

But it could be years — and many billions of dollars — before that’s a reality.

The study essentially will give officials and policymakers a strategic plan that federal officials can reference when funding becomes available.

“What it does is it gets Texas caught up, as far as our planning level studies … that would put us in line for future funding for environmental design and construction,” said Jennifer Moczygemba, rail system section director for TxDOT.

TxDOT’s press release is here. Passenger rail through the I-35 corridor makes a lot of sense and should be part of the long-term strategy to improve mobility and fight traffic congestion there, but I’ll wait till something actually happens to get excited about this. The Statesman and Swamplot have more.

TxDOT gets more high speed rail money

Still not much, but every little bit counts.

The Texas Department of Transportation will receive $15 million to begin engineering and environmental work on a high-speed rail link between Houston and Dallas, U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood announced [last week].

Though it could be a decade or more before Houstonians can reach North Texas on a train topping 150 mph, rail advocates say the grant of federal stimulus funds is an important acknowledgment that the state’s congested highways alone cannot accommodate Texas’ growth.

“This is really big news for Texas because it connects the two biggest cities, and it’s not just a study to analyze whether that corridor makes sense — this decision admits that if there is a corridor in Texas that makes sense, Houston-Dallas/Fort Worth is that corridor,” said Harris County Judge Ed Emmett, the former CEO of a transportation trade group.

The grant was part of $2 billion the Federal Railroad Administration awarded to 22 high-speed inter-city passenger rail projects in 15 states. The funds became available after they had been rejected by Florida, having been turned away earlier by Wisconsin and Ohio, said Bill Glavin, director of TxDOT’s rail division. The Republican governors in those states said they could not afford the possible local costs associated with the work.

Texas Gov. Rick Perry will have no such option. The grant stipulates the states awarded the funding cannot return it, Glavin said.

[…]

The grant will fund studies to determine the environmental impact of construction and to pick a route, Glavin said. The work is expected to take 24 to 30 months.

Sweet. I think all of us who would like to see high speed rail in Texas owe thank you notes to the petty wingnut governors of those other states. The irony of us being the beneficiary of that is just killing me. But hey, I’ll take it. Houston Tomorrow has more.

Texas asks for some of Florida’s rejected high speed rail funds

Good.

The Texas Department of Transportation (TxDOT) is hoping to snag a portion of Florida’s unwanted high-speed rail money. TxDOT, which submitted its application to the Federal Railroad Administration this week, is hoping to secure nearly $43 million of the $2.4 billion dollars that’s available. The agency wants to spend $18 million on preliminary engineering and environmental studies for the proposed Dallas-Houston high-speed rail line, which is considered the most economically viable route in the state—not surprising given that, with a combined population of 3.3 million people, they’re two of the most populated cities in the country. “We feel like it’s time to connect those two,” said Jennifer Moczygemba, the rail system director with TxDOT’s Rail Division. There’s not a whole lot going on in between the two cities though, which is why Moczygemba says it would likely operate as an express service with speeds up to 150 miles per hour and few or no stops.

TxDOT wants to spend the remaining $24.8 million on the final design and construction of a federally-mandated safety system (called Positive Train Control) for the Trinity Rail Express corridor, which operates between Dallas and Fort Worth. The safety technology monitors train movements to prevent rail collisions and derailments on tracks that carry both passenger and freight trains.

Texas will be in competition with states like California that are way ahead of us in rail preparedness for this money, but nothing ventured, nothing gained. Via Houston Tomorrow.

Texas gets a teeny bit of high speed rail money

It’s a step forward, but a very very small step.

High-speed rail in Texas, long left for dead, is likely to regain a pulse today when U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood announces a $5.6 million grant to plan a passenger rail line from Oklahoma City to the Rio Grande.

The money is part of $2.4 billion in federal grants to be unveiled today for high-speed rail projects, a spokesman for the Federal Railroad Administration said.

The $5.6 million grant, announced Wednesday by the office of U.S. Rep. Lloyd Doggett, D-Austin, would pay for what is expected to be a 42-month study that would identify a preferred route on existing or new tracks, estimate capital and annual operating costs, project ridership and evaluate environmental effects of passenger rail.

Building high-speed rail from the Texas-Mexico border to Oklahoma, however, would cost billions of dollars. Policymakers have not identified a source for the money.

The grant is only half of what the Texas Department of Transportation requested for what it estimated would be a $14 million study. TxDOT will contribute $2.8 million from money the agency had approved for the Lone Star Rail District, the agency that hopes someday to build commuter rail between Georgetown and San Antonio.

The $11.2 million grant application did not mention any contribution from Oklahoma.

TxDOT had requested an additional $8.1 million to study passenger rail from Austin to Houston and from Houston to Dallas. But Sarah Dohl , Doggett’s communications director, said the $5.6 million is all the state will get.

Better than nothing, but still. Don’t spend it all in one place.

The SUPERTRAIN passes us by

We knew we weren’t going to get much in the way of funding for high speed rail in Texas, but it still kinda stings to see just how little we got.

The $3.75 million that the Lone Star State will receive is a sliver of the more than $8 billion distributed, mostly to states that have plans and other funding ready to go.

The goal is to build a coordinated national high-speed-rail network that could help relieve road and air congestion. Plans range from upgrading Amtrak tracks to help trains move at more than 100 mph to building elevated tracks for European-style bullet trains, which could shuttle travelers across long distances at more than 185 mph.

Long-standing plans call for the high-speed network to pass through the Metroplex, linking North Texas with St. Louis and Chicago to the north and San Antonio to the south.

Let’s just say we’re a long, long way from that. The DMN puts it in context.

Consider what others are doing. Take Florida, which has, like Texas, a Republican governor and GOP-controlled Legislature:

  • In October, U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood told Florida lawmakers to get their “act together” if they wanted stimulus money Congress authorized for high-speed rail.
  • In December, those lawmakers passed a high-speed rail bill in special session to address governance and funding.
  • Thursday, President Barack Obama went to Florida with Amtrak-riding veteran Joe Biden to announce a $1.25 billion grant to develop Tampa-to-Orlando service for 168-mph trains.

In California, voters had already embraced bullet-train development by approving a $10 billion stake in financing. Illinois, aside from having close friends in Washington, had pledged support to modernize current Chicago-to-St. Louis service.

In the rail sweepstakes, no smart money was on Texas – certainly not after Karen Rae, deputy administrator of the Federal Railroad Administration, said in Austin this month that there “has been no central vision, no common vision for rail in Texas.”

With that assessment, we agree.

Ouch. I don’t know when the next opportunity will come, but I sure hope we can do better than this.

Don’t hold your breath waiting for SUPERTRAIN funds

The DMN throws a little cold water on the hopes of high speed rail advocates in Texas.

This month, at a speech in Austin, a top federal rail administrator charged with managing the distribution of the new grants said Texas’ application lacks the kind of political support from the governor and the Legislature that would help it compete against other states where that support has been stronger.

“There has been no central vision, no common vision for rail in Texas,” said Karen Rae, deputy commissioner for the Federal Railroad Administration. “And that kind of vision, that kind of support from the political leadership, is critical to success in our program.”

[…]

The first $8 billion of what could be several times that much money over the next five years is expected to be awarded in the next several weeks. And Texas, with its flat landscape and bulging urban populations just far enough away from each other to make high-speed rail attractive, is home to two of the eight rail corridors the U.S. government has identified as likely places to invest.

Texas has requested $1.8 billion in the current round of funding, most of it to fast-track a bullet train proposal – dubbed the Texas T-Bone – that would run trains at 220 mph from Fort Worth to San Antonio, and from Temple to Houston.

Rae said other states have done much more than Texas has to enhance their funding requests.

“Immediately after we announced this [funding] program, the state of Florida called a special session of its Legislature – and they set about addressing their laws specifically so as to make their application as strong as possible. In the Midwest, eight governors and the mayor of Chicago have formed a formal compact to work together to bring high-speed rail.”

The good news is that this is not the only time such money will be available, and we have at least taken some steps forward. Maybe seeing other states get into a position to actually start building out their networks will act as a catalyst to spur us farther along. But as with many things, a change in leadership at the top would help, too. Thanks to EoW for the link.

More money for SUPERTRAINS

Good news.

[Thursday], the U.S. House passed its housing and transportation bill, which will provide funds for fiscal year 2010. Approved mostly by members of the majority Democratic party, the bill would allocate $4 billion to high-speed rail programs — if the Senate’s version, likely to be considered after the August recess, includes the same provision. If a planned infrastructure bank is authorized by the Congress later this year, $2 billion of the included funds would be shifted there and could be devoted to non-rail projects, though that prospect appears unlikely at this time.

In the President’s Budget, released earlier this year, Mr. Obama asked the Congress to devote $1 billion for the next five years for high-speed rail, in addition to the $8 billion already marked for the program under the stimulus bill. The House’s decision to increase that number to $4 billion is a direct reaction to the huge response from states and the private sphere for stimulus-based federal rail grants. The FRA revealed that forty states had applied for more than $103 billion.

Excellent. I hope this increases Texas’ chances of getting SUPERTRAIN funds.

Thinking forward to when the Texas T-Bone is up and running, how attractive would it be as a travel option? Right now, a round trip to Austin is a bit more than 300 miles for me, or about a tank of gas. That’s $25-$40 depending on one’s fuel efficiency at $2.50 a gallon gas. There isn’t a direct Amtrak route from Houston to Austin now, but a round trip between Houston and San Antonio would run you about $70. You’ll note those departure and arrival times aren’t exactly convenient, and the train ride is much longer than driving would be, but one presumes the future T-Bone train would run more frequently, with business day trips in mind, and likely at a lower cost. Assuming it has amenities like WiFi and electric outlets, even at cost that’s higher than driving and a comparable trip duration, I’d consider it a win. As long as I could get between the station and my destination in Austin easily enough – Austin’s future light rail line will be of some help, imperfect as it may be – it would be something I’d strongly consider. We’ve a long way to go before we get there, but it’s worth looking forward to. Thanks to Yglesias for the link.