The nation’s top federal railroad official is giving the prospect of high-speed rail in Texas an enthusiastic thumbs-up, saying the region “appears to be an ideal market.”
Federal Railroad Administrator Joseph Szabo visited Fort Worth and met with Mayor Betsy Price to discuss the possibility of bringing bullet trains capable of traveling 205 mph to Houston, Dallas, Arlington and Fort Worth.
The Dallas-to-Fort Worth connection is the subject of several public meetings, including one Tuesday evening in downtown Fort Worth, at which residents are being asked for their opinions on the proposed high-speed rail lines.
“It’s ridiculous. We need options to get us back and forth to work,” said Tammy Stancil of Hurst, who frequently rides Trinity Railway Express and was among about 50 people at Tuesday’s Fort Worth meeting. “We wouldn’t have all the hassles of driving a car.”
Other public meetings are scheduled for this morning in Arlington and Thursday afternoon in Dallas.
Officials from the Texas Department of Transportation and Federal Railroad Administration will also be at the meetings to answer questions about the futuristic proposal, which could reinvent the way Texans — who are among the most voracious users of automobiles and commercial airlines in the world — move about their state.
Szabo’s office is leading environmental reviews of two high-speed rail studies — one focusing on connecting Houston to Dallas, the other Dallas to Arlington and Fort Worth.
Szabo, who was in Fort Worth on Nov. 7 for celebration of the completion of the Tower 55 railroad intersection, said the proposed Houston-Dallas line would be an ideal length for a bullet train, enabling travel between two huge metro areas in about 90 minutes.
“Certainly I’ve been well aware and very excited about the broader effort to link the fourth- and sixth-largest urban areas in the nation —Dallas-Fort Worth and Houston, Texas,” Szabo told the Star-Telegram.
“You know, this is roughly 250 miles, which is just kind of the sweet spot for high-speed rail. My agency right now is leading the series of public hearings up and down the line to kind of flush out the alternatives, hear the public comments, get the input.”
A private company, Texas Central Railway, has proposed building a Houston-Dallas connection with no public funding. The project could cost $10 billion or more, and the company has announced plans to use the same technology as Central Japan Railway Co., also known as JR Central, which operates high-speed electrical trains from Tokyo to Osaka.
Texas Central has offered no commitments to extend its Houston-Dallas line to Arlington and Fort Worth, but North Texas city and county officials have repeatedly said they would support high-speed rail only if it served the middle and western areas of the Metroplex — not just Dallas.
As a result, the state Transportation Department has created a high-speed rail commission, with former Fort Worth Councilman Bill Meadows as its chairman, and is overseeing conceptual planning for the Dallas-Arlington-Fort Worth connection.
Szabo said he understands the importance of connecting the whole region with high-speed rail.
“Mayor Price made very, very sure that I was very much aware of Fort Worth’s interest in their piece of that project,” Szabo said.
He didn’t commit to funding the Dallas-to-Fort Worth line, which is expected to cost roughly $4 billion, but he did say the Obama administration’s long-term transportation funding proposal, the Grow America Act, allows for creative use of federal money to help pay for projects in which state governments and the private sector are partners.
Also, the administration could be looking at Texas as a place to demonstrate the United States’ interest in connecting its metropolitan job centers by high-speed rail. Efforts to fund high-speed rail projects in Florida and Wisconsin failed after officials in those states balked at the prospect of raising tens of millions of dollars in local funds to match the federal dollars.
More interest than first thought
Meadows, who recently traveled to Japan to view JR Central’s rail line firsthand, said there is more interest in privately funding the Dallas-to-Fort Worth line than many people may realize. He said the money doesn’t have to come from current tax dollars but could come from arrangements similar to tax increment financing, a tool used by cities to capture future taxes as an area grows, to repay bond debt.
“There’s more substance to this,” Meadows said. “I have been talking to the financial people. It’s evolving. There are those in that business who think it’s a very viable corridor, and there’s a presumption it will be part of a system.”
He said the funding method could include transit-oriented development.
“I saw that in Japan pretty clearly. They have multiple sites, 10 or 20 acres, with a lot of high-rise development that was built there because of the rail development itself. It may not be a tax subsidy as much as it is a capture of a funding.”
Last month, many residents at public meetings in the Dallas-Houston corridor showed support for high-speed rail. But in Huntsville, dozens of residents argued that such a project would require taking thousands of acres of rural private property for a project that would largely benefit the state’s most populated areas.
Many of the opponents were members of the Sam Houston Tea Party, although they didn’t necessarily identify themselves by party affiliation.