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August 27, 2014

High-speed rail gaining momentum in Texas

A privately funded high-speed-rail line from Houston to Dallas would include a single stop in College Station, an official says. Meanwhile, bullet train advocates look at a Fort Worth-Austin line.

The number of Texas cities that could be served by high-speed rail is growing quickly and now includes Bryan-College Station, an area best known as the home of Texas A&M University that was bypassed by the interstate highway system.

High-speed-rail advocates stepped up their efforts Wednesday to bring bullet trains to Texas as early as 2021. A commission set up to oversee a proposed connection between Dallas and Fort Worth unanimously agreed to seek federal funding to also study a Fort Worth-Austin connection.

One after another, public officials at the Commission for High-Speed Rail in Dallas/Fort Worth meeting at Union Station in downtown Dallas took the microphone to say they believe that what was once considered a pie-in-the-sky idea — running passenger trains than can go 220 mph in the Lone Star State — is emerging as a real possibility, with the initial Houston-to-Dallas line possibly opening in roughly seven years.

That initial line would also include a stop in College Station, said Ted Houghton, chairman of the Texas Transportation Commission.

“The Houston-to-Dallas connection is going to happen,” Houghton told the Star-Telegram. “It will have one stop, in College Station. It will be just east of Highway 6.”

A preferred alternative will be identified during the federal environmental process.

Meanwhile, members of the Commission for High-Speed Rail in Dallas/Fort Worth stressed that their focus is on ensuring that high-speed rail serves not only downtown Dallas but also Arlington’s entertainment district and downtown Fort Worth.

Lines to Oklahoma, Mexico

“What began as a fuzzy concept is beginning to take shape and form,” said former Fort Worth Councilman Bill Meadows, chairman of the High-Speed Rail Commission.

The Metroplex connection from Fort Worth to Dallas is expected to cost $2.5 billion to $4 billion and would likely require federal funding, officials said.

But the commission is also getting serious about studying high-speed-rail lines that would run the I-35 corridor, possibly connecting Oklahoma City to Austin, San Antonio and even Monterrey, Mexico.

Leading the interest in high-speed rail is a private company known as Texas Central Railway, which has proposed building a $10 billion line connecting Houston to Dallas by 2021. That project would be entirely privately funded, company officials have said. The company is in a partnership with Japan’s JR Central Railway to use the same technology featured on the Tokyo-to-Osaka line.

Texas Central Railway Director Travis Kelly confirmed that his company intends to serve the College Station area on Day One of high-speed rail. But, he said, possible rail alignments are still being studied, and a station serving that general area could be built miles east of the city.

A federal environmental study of that route is underway, although maps showing specific rail lines haven’t been made public.

Houghton’s disclosure that College Station would be a lone stop on the route was the most detailed information to date provided by either company or government officials. The line would terminate at Dallas’ Union Station near Reunion Tower and also near Houston’s Galleria area, Houghton said.

In previous discussions about high-speed rail, Texas Central Railway officials have said the route would generally follow the Interstate 45 corridor, which could put a high-speed line closer to Madisonville. College Station is about 40 miles west of I-45.

Thinking big

A vote by the Commission for High-Speed Rail in Dallas/Fort Worth to pursue funding to study a Fort Worth-to-Austin line was a seemingly small step. The federal government has invited states to apply for grants of roughly $3 million to help pay for planning of high-speed-rail projects.

But the vote could also widen the group’s mission beyond just a high-speed line in North Texas. The idea is to make the project bigger, with possible connections to Oklahoma City and Mexico, so it is a more appealing candidate for federal funds, officials said.

“I think a big part of the role of this commission is finding that funding — whether it’s private funding or public-private partnership,” said Tarrant County Judge Glen Whitley, a High-Speed Rail Commission member.

The commission is an advisory group of seven North Texas business leaders appointed this year by the Texas Transportation Commission.

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