The Texas Department of Transportation has completed its first study on a potential passenger rail line that would connect Austin and Houston in less than three hours with possible service to College Station.

"This [study] is the cost side other than the operations and maintenance," Jennifer Moczygemba, TxDOT's rail system section director, told the board of the Capital Area Metropolitan Planning Organization on Feb. 13. "The next step to this would be to look at the ridership."

TxDOT is in the process of presenting key findings from the study to governmental bodies. One of those findings is the cost. According to the analysis, building out the rail line would cost between $936 million and $1.2 billion.

But first is the extensive research and environmental review process, which puts fruition of the project many years out. Moczygemba said the department has other high-priority corridors, such as between Dallas-Fort Worth and Houston, to focus on before it allocates budgeted research funds toward a ridership study.

"We want to make sure we are concentrating our budget and those available funds to those studies first, and then if we do have money that is available, we could proceed with the ridership study," she said.

In addition to looking at how many people could hypothetically use the rail line, the ridership analysis would also evaluate the economic sense of providing service to College Station and if the half-hour difference in travel time between the proposed routes would affect ridership.

With that information, Moczygemba said TxDOT would have a better idea of what federal subsidies the department would be eligible for and the amount of revenue that could be generated from operations. Following that, TxDOT could move into the environmental review process.

Feasibility study components

The feasibility study identified four potential routes and five stops, including one in Elgin, Giddings, Brenham, and Hempstead, and evaluated existing infrastructure as well as changes that would need to be made to that infrastructure for the trains to travel up to 110 miles per hour.

"A lot of curves on the Austin-Giddings line need to be straightened out so we can go ahead and get train speeds up to where they need to be," said Joe Lileikis, associate vice president of Austin-based engineering firm HNTB Corporation, which assisted TxDOT with the feasibility study.

The rail line would make two to four round trips daily, connecting in Austin from the MetroRail Red Line and potentially meeting up with commuter rails in Hempstead and Bryan, located near College Station. Trains would be composed of one locomotive, three passenger cars that can seat 70-80 people and a dining and lounge car.

The study also assumed that the passenger train would run parallel to an existing Union Pacific freight line between Austin and Houston.

"If there's potential for coming to any kind of agreement with Union Pacific on those routes, the cost could be less, but these are pretty heavily used freight routes, so we don't know what that potential really could be," Moczygemba said.

TxDOT's rail division partnered with the Gulf Coast Rail District for the feasibility analysis, with TxDOT studying the corridor between Austin and Hempstead and the Golf Coast District, focusing on the Hempstead-Houston corridor. Cost estimates provided by TxDOT did not include the build-out for the line connecting Houston with Hempstead, Lileikis said.

If built, TxDOT would not likely operate the rail line, Moczygemba said.

"Amtrak could be a possibility as one of the operators but it would be competitively bid," she said.

Coordination with other agencies

After the presentation, CAMPO board member and Austin City Councilman Chris Riley asked if TxDOT considered its passenger rail line to be a competing option to another line proposed by the Texas High Speed Rail and Transportation Corporation—the Texas T-Bone—or if it would be a complimentary service.

"Texas T-Bone doesn't have any studies or engineering behind it," Moczygemba said. "It's mostly just political support that they've gathered through their initiative as what they think would be the best route, but they don't really have any studies to support that,"

And unlike the Texas T-Bone, TxDOT's rail line would not be a high-speed train, she said.

Nonetheless, the corridor is one that will continue to get attention from transportation planners and policymakers. TxDOT undertook the feasibility study after the Texas Transportation Institute published a report that looked at intercity pairs.

"[The TTI study] was a high-level study looking at demographics and ridership, and this corridor was identified as one of the top corridors [in the state]," Moczygemba said.

She added that population was one of big reasons that the Austin-Houston corridor was identified as one of the most important in Texas.

Coordination with municipalities

At the Feb. 13 presentation, Hays County Commissioner and CAMPO Chair Will Conley asked how affected municipalities had reacted to the proposed rail line. Moczygemba said that since the study had not moved into the environmental phase, TxDOT had not yet notified other municipalities about the study.

"This was purely looking at it from an infrastructure analysis level. When we get into the ridership analysis, some of those concerns will be developed a little more," she said.

Corrections: An earlier version of this article incorrectly stated that the feasibility indendified three potential routes instead of four. The earlier version also said that each car could seat 210-250 people, though that is actually per train.