Agency puts up more high-speed rail money

Bullet trains like those used in Japan soon could be running from Dallas-Fort Worth to Houston.
Bullet trains like those used in Japan soon could be running from Dallas-Fort Worth to Houston. Courtesy

The effort to connect cities from Fort Worth to Houston by high-speed rail continues to chug along, and attempts to stop the plan through political channels have faded for now.

The Regional Transportation Council agreed last month to pay $4.5 million through 2018 to keep up planning efforts on the portion of the proposed bullet train system that would connect Fort Worth, Arlington and Dallas.

Also, the Federal Railroad Administration has agreed that the preferred corridor for a proposed Dallas-to-Houston train should closely follow electrical transmission lines between the two cities.

Though politically sensitive, the concept of trains capable of traveling 220 mph zipping across the state is moving closer to reality, supporters say. Efforts to block the project failed during the state legislative session that ended June 1, clearing the way for more study of the project, which supporters hope to have open to the traveling public by 2021.

High speed rail has the potential to revolutionize the way we travel between the state’s largest metropolitan areas.

Bill Meadows, chairman of state Commission for High-Speed Rail, Dallas/Fort Worth Region

Much of the studying will likely be completed by the time the Legislature reconvenes for its next regular session in January 2017.

“High speed rail has the potential to revolutionize the way we travel between the state’s largest metropolitan areas,” said Bill Meadows, chairman of the state’s Commission for High-Speed Rail in the Dallas/Fort Worth Region. “With population growth in Dallas-Fort Worth and throughout Texas showing no signs of slowing down, innovation is necessary and will ensure the transportation system continues to provide safe, efficient service to all.”

Dallas-Fort Worth line

In DFW, the Regional Transportation Council, the area’s 43-member official planning body, found a way to assuage concerns from opponents about spending highway money on rail projects. The council decided to use $4.5 million in surplus revenue collected from the region’s toll roads.

The money will be spent on preliminary engineering and will help the high-speed rail commission gather the data it needs to document projected ridership, Meadows said. Such documentation will demonstrate whether the travel mode would truly fill a public need, he said.

The allocation is the latest of several attempts by local and federal officials to keep the high-speed rail study on track with small infusions of funding. The project is expected to cost about $4 billion.

More than a year ago, the federal government awarded a $15 million grant to get the obligatory environmental study off the ground. Also, the RTC had previously set aside an additional $1.4 million for the bullet train planning.

A precise route for bullet trains through North Texas hasn’t been identified, but many officials have said they support putting a large portion of the Dallas-Arlington-Fort Worth line on Interstate 30 right of way.

Such a move would make it easier to connect to AT&T Stadium, which is home for the Dallas Cowboys and has also been the venue for many big-ticket events including a Super Bowl and the first sanctioned college football championship.

The rail line would also connect Arlington, widely considered the largest city in the United States without a full-fledged mass transit system, with the networks of buses and light-rail and commuter trains in Dallas and Fort Worth.

And it would hold the line on property acquisition costs and minimize the need for condemnation of private land, since the Texas Department of Transportation already owns I-30 right of way.

But how to pay the full price tag remains a mystery. Officials at the North Central Texas Council of Governments acknowledge that it would likely require a large infusion of public dollars.

Dallas-Houston corridor

The proposed Dallas-Houston route is a different matter.

A company known as Texas Central Partners has proposed building the 240-mile Dallas-Houston line, which could cost $10 billion or more, with no public funding. That group, which would use technology from Japan’s famed and futuristic JR Central Railway, has lined up investors who have already committed $75 million in seed money.

The trains would travel at speeds of roughly 220 mph, so riders could get to Houston in about 90 minutes.

Investors include Fort Worth fund manager John Kleinheinz, Dallas developer Jack Matthews and Houston entrepreneur Drayton McLane Jr.

The Dallas-Houston line is still on course and could open as soon as 2021, although no actual start date has been announced, said Tom Schieffer of Fort Worth, a former diplomat and Texas Rangers baseball club president who is a senior adviser to the project.

The trains would travel at speeds of roughly 220 mph, making it possible for riders to travel between Dallas and Houston in roughly 90 minutes at a fare comparable to the price of an airline ticket. A station would be built in downtown Dallas.

Efforts during the legislative session this year to slam the brakes on high-speed rail fell short, although opponents are still showing up to voice their concerns at public meetings. Many opponents represent rural areas between Houston and Dallas.

The Federal Railroad Administration, in an Aug. 10 technical report, concurred with Texas Central’s assertion that the utility line corridor is the preferred alternative. The corridor includes high-voltage transmission lines owned by Centerpoint Energy and Oncor Electric Delivery.

Several other options were studied, including building the rail line closer to existing freight train corridors.

“It would be feasible to parallel the existing Centerpoint Energy and Oncor Electrical Delivery electrical transmission lines for more than 70 percent of the existing utility easements. The utility easement is generally straight and would not require many divergences for curves or to avoid crossing the utility lines,” the technical report concludes. “Additionally, a reduction in the train speed is not anticipated due to the limited number of curves along the utility corridor.”

By 2040, the Metroplex is expected to have 10.5 million residents, compared with 7 million today, and Houston will have a similar-size population, said Michael Morris, transportation director for the council of governments.

Also, a company that operates France's national high-speed rail network is exploring involvement in Texas bullet trains and could be interested in focusing on the Dallas-Arlington-Fort Worth connection, officials have said.

Gordon Dickson: 817-390-7796, @gdickson

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