High-speed rail moves ahead, TEX Rail rolls over major bump

High-speed rail and TEX Rail, both long-discussed North Texas projects, are making significant progress this year.

The vision:

By 2020, North Texas residents would board a high-speed train in Dallas or at DFW International Airport and arrive in Houston 79 minutes later.

By 2016, commuters or shoppers would wait at a train station in Grapevine to board the TEX Rail to Fort Worth. Or, they could ride to the airport and take a DART train into Dallas.

Plans for the high-speed rail are shaping up enough that ideas have surfaced as to where the Dallas-area station should be. And TEX Rail rolled past a big obstacle this spring when a key agreement was reached with Dallas Area Rapid Transit.

High-speed rail

The sleek, 200-mph rail comes with a high price tag — roughly $7 billion. The Central Japan Railway, which has two offices in Texas and one in Washington, D.C., under the name Texas Central Railway, plans to foot the entire bill.

"We've been told by the Japanese that it will be 100 percent privately financed," said Tom Shelton, senior program manager at the North Central Texas Council of Governments. "The consortium they have — it's a who's who. They have the financial wherewithal to finance the project. It's all the Japanese electronics conglomerates, everybody."

Tarrant County Commissioner Gary Fickes said he has been working to bring high-speed rail to Texas for eight years. He belongs to an advocacy group, Texas High Speed Rail and Transportation Corp., and also sits on the Regional Transportation Council, which oversees transportation funding, planning and coordination.

The RTC and the NCTCOG comprise the federally designated metropolitan planning organization for the Dallas-Fort Worth metropolitan area.

Plans for the high-speed rail, sometimes known as the bullet train, are gaining traction, Fickes said.

"It's gotten real serious in the last year," he said. "In the last 18 months it's kind of taken on a life of its own, like it's going to happen."

He would like to see the northern end of the line follow Hwy. 360 through Arlington, Fort Worth and DFW Airport.

Travis Kelly, Texas Central Railway director, said through a spokesperson: "We are researching a route and will use that to determine the best possible options ... based on ridership, construction costs, availability of land, environmental factors, etc. Nobody just gets to pick a route or a station location.

"The bottom line is, we will consider every reasonable route in our research, and then the best options will be vetted through those federal agencies and the appropriate public processes."

Said Shelton, "What's going to be really instrumental is to make sure it's the right project that's implemented. They're going to want to get a return on their investment. It's very critically important that there be a rich alignment with the right stations, located in such a fashion that it attracts the most riders."

Fickes said distances in Texas and the dry, flat landscape are pluses.

Because of the construction expense, high-speed rail is not cost-effective over extremely long distances — longer than those between major Texas cities.

Expensive tunnels or bridges would not be required.

The electric rail is clean and safe, said Fickes, who noted that Central Japan Railway has operated high-speed rail for 50 years without a single fatality.

Using air travel as a gauge, the demand is high. He said about 8,000 people fly between Dallas and Houston daily.

TEX Rail

The rail line planned between DFW Airport and Fort Worth with a station in downtown Grapevine has made "significant progress" since spring, Shelton said.

The Fort Worth Transportation Authority board, which operates the Fort Worth-Dallas Trinity Railway Express, also is handling the TEX Rail project. The board was replaced in March after Mayor Betsy Price expressed dissatisfaction.

The Fort Worth City Council removed all of its appointees to the board and the Tarrant County Commission also removed its single appointee. In an open message to citizens posted on the city of Fort Worth's website Feb. 7, Price said she asked The T board nearly a year before to speed up negotiations for access, or tracking rights for TEX Rail.

She wrote, "Today, with no tracking rights, and with hundreds of millions of federal transportation dollars hanging in the balance, we are at a crossroads. We have come to a significant decision point for our city: "Do we make commuter rail happen, or do we let this go?"

The council's removal of its appointees on the board "sent a strong message that a commuter rail system is worth fighting for. We will not let this go," Price wrote.

By the end of May, a key agreement with DART to use tracks from the Fort Worth Stockyards to DFW International Airport was approved. DART has owned the Cotton Belt line, which includes that stretch, for many years, Shelton said.

From the airport, riders could take DART's Orange Line into Dallas.

On the west end of TEX Rail, The T still has to negotiate with Union Pacific Railroad for access to portions of track that run to south Fort Worth.

Half of the estimated $900 million needed to build TEX Rail will come from a federal grant, Shelton said. The remainder, he said, will come from The T sales tax collections as well as the NCTCOG, which has access to state funds.

The $450 million in federal funds will not be approved until TEX Rail has environmental clearance, currently being sought. Once the federal New Start grant is approved, there is no time limit for using it.

Another change related to TEX Rail took place during the 2013 Legislature, when a bill passed allowing Grapevine to have a representative on The T board, if the county commission chooses someone from the city when a vacancy occurs.

Fickes said that since the commission just appointed a new member another appointment is not likely anytime soon.

Grapevine voters approved a one-cent sales tax increase in 2006, 3/8-cent of which goes to TEX Rail. The city had collected about $48 million by the end of 2012 for the rail line.

Cotton Belt Line

A third proposed rail line for the area, the Cotton Belt, is back to the drawing board after the Legislature failed to pass a bill that would have helped pay for it.

The Cotton Belt Line would have followed the same corridor as TEX Rail, but continued to the Plano area. The bill would have created a rail improvement district.