Ex-Fort Worth councilman expected to chair high-speed rail commission

01/23/2014 7:48 PM

01/24/2014 8:09 AM

As high-speed rail advocates get more serious about connecting Houston, Dallas, Arlington and Fort Worth with bullet trains, the Interstate 30 corridor is emerging as the preferred pathway through the Metroplex’s urban core.

The latest evidence of this push to build the first leg essentially right on top of I-30 is expected Thursday when the Texas Transportation Commission is scheduled to approve the creation of a high-speed rail commission.

The new body’s first presiding officer is expected to be Bill Meadows, a former Fort Worth City Council member and state transportation commissioner. He was recently appointed to the Dallas/Fort Worth Airport board.

Meadows will oversee the effort to incorporate the state’s highway rights of way into the high-speed rail line, which a private company in partnership with Central Japan Railway has proposed building by 2021.

Although Meadows hasn’t publicly stated a preference for where he would like the 220-mph trains to go, his selection as the new commission’s leader is a signal that the interests of Arlington and Fort Worth will be closely protected as the state negotiates with a private developer to build the futuristic line, said Ted Houghton of El Paso, chairman of the Texas Transportation Commission.

Elected officials in Arlington and Fort Worth have repeatedly said they favored the I-30 corridor for bullet trains.

Meadows has “all the background and experience,” Houghton said. “I don’t think there’s anybody better.”

Reached Thursday by phone, Meadows declined to discuss details of the potential work ahead.

Those who advocated for a different high-speed route — up the Texas 360 corridor directly into DFW Airport — now concede that they probably don’t have enough political support. Instead, the line will most likely follow existing freight railroad tracks from Houston to downtown Dallas, then the I-30 corridor to Arlington, with a stop near AT&T Stadium, and on to downtown Fort Worth, said Gary Fickes, a Tarrant County commissioner.

Fickes is co-chairman of the Texas High-Speed Rail and Transportation Corp., a group that pushed for a high-speed connection to DFW Airport. But Fickes said he has told other area political leaders that he will go along with the plan to put high-speed rail on I-30.

“I’m on board with that as long as, if and when it gets around to doing rail from San Antonio and Austin and coming up [Interstate 35W], that it comes to Fort Worth and not veer off to Dallas,” Fickes said.

Fickes said he supports the state’s plan to create a high-speed rail commission and to appoint Meadows as its leader.

“I think what we’re seeing is the Texas Department of Transportation is recognizing there’s really a good likelihood this high-speed rail project is going to happen and they want to play a role, which they should,” he said.

While Metroplex leaders have been vocal in their preferred routes for high-speed rail in North Texas, many specifics of the project haven’t been publicized.

Twin federal environmental studies have been initiated — one for the Houston-to-Dallas segment, the other for Dallas-to-Fort Worth. A preferred route likely will be selected this year, with input from the public, officials have said.

Texas Central Railway is proposing to build the Dallas-to-Houston connection at a potential cost of $10 billion and has pledged to raise the money privately, with no tax dollars involved. The company would use rolling stock much like the state-of-the-art vehicles used on the Toyko-to-Osaka routes by its partner company in Japan.

With trains capable of traveling 220 mph, a trip from Houston to Dallas would take about 90 minutes, with few or no stops.

Not long after Texas Central Railway announced its concept, officials from the western side of the Metroplex got wind that the plan included only a stop in either downtown or perhaps south Dallas — with no connections to Tarrant County or other points beyond Big D.

Members of the Regional Transportation Council quickly protested, saying they didn’t support a high-speed line that stopped only in Dallas. So the RTC approved a “three station” concept: Whoever builds a bullet train system in North Texas would have to agree to stop not only in Dallas but also in Fort Worth and either Arlington or DFW Airport in between.

The Texas Central Railway said it could build the system while taking into account local sentiment. While the company can pay the estimated $10 billion for the Houston-to-Dallas connection, it makes no such promises about funding the Dallas-to-Fort Worth portion.

The high-speed rail commission will have an advisory function and no bond-issuing authority, Houghton said. But he said it will be responsible for setting the state’s course with regard to high-speed rail, especially in intercity corridors.

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