High speed rail group thinks construction could start next year, but questions remain

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Correction: A previous version of this story insinuated that Texas Central is producing the final environmental impact statement. It has been updated to clarify that the EIS is issued by the Federal Railroad Administration. A previous version also stated that Texas Central conducted a survey of 2,000 Texas drivers in 2016. This survey was actually conducted by L.E.K. Consultants.

A proposed project to transform the way Texans travel between the state’s two largest cities could be under construction next year and up and running by 2024. However, opposition groups question the viability of the project, which calls for building a 240-mile high-speed rail line between Houston and Dallas.

First announced in 2012, the Texas Central Railway would travel as fast as 205 miles per hour. It would be the first high-speed rail line in North America, according to officials with Texas Central Partners, the private group developing the project.

Momentum for the project has been growing, said Holly Reed, managing director of external affairs with Texas Central. In September, the company announced it secured a $300 million loan from the Japan Overseas Infrastructure Investment Corp. and the Japan Bank for International Cooperation. Reed said the loan provides funding for all aspects of the project up through construction and indicates the rail line is capable of attracting investor support.

“This loan is important for many reasons,” she said. “This loan shows that somebody has looked at our business plan [who]is a major global financial player and made a loan to the project.”

In October, Texas Central brought on Spain-based Renfe as an operating partner. Renfe has 25 years of experience operating high-speed rail in Europe.

Early on in the process, officials with Texas Central had hopes that construction could begin as early as 2016—a timeline that depended on factors outside of Texas Central’s control, including the environmental surveying process. Since a draft environmental statement was issued by the Federal Railroad Administration in December 2017, Texas Central officials have given 2019 as a target for when construction could begin, but outside factors could result in this timeline changing again.

Opponents of the rail line question how the train will be funded and whether Texas Central will be able to acquire the land needed from private landowners along the proposed route.

Kyle Workman, a Leon County resident and chairman of Texans Against High Speed Rail, a group opposing the rail project, said he does not think the project will ever come to fruition, and if it does, it will not catch on in Texas.

“Here in Texas we have high car ownership and low population density,” he said. “Anywhere high-speed rail is reasonably successful has the opposite. That’s a multigenerational thing, it doesn’t happen overnight.”

A 90-minute trip

It a draft environmental report issued by the Federal Railroad Administration last December, federal officials confirmed a need for a multimodal transportation option to alleviate congestion between Houston and Dallas, which is expected to worsen as populations in those two cities continue to rise.

A preferred route for where the rail line would run was identified in December, Reed said. Since then, Texas Central has been looking at the granular design details of how the rail line will be built, she said. Engineering work is ongoing, and Texas Central officials hope the FRA issues the final environmental impact statement next year and to be able to start construction soon after.

The rail line would take riders from Houston to Dallas in 90 minutes, Reed said. The preferred route features a stop in Grimes County near Texas A&M University, while the Dallas stop will be located in downtown Dallas.

A Houston-area stop has yet to be finalized, but the preferred stop for Texas Central is near the intersection of Hwy. 290 and Loop 610, the former location of the Northwest Mall, Reed said.

“The Northwest Mall location is exceptionally well-suited to deliver people downtown, to the [Texas] Medical Center, to the Energy Corridor,” she said. “[The Metropolitan Transit Authority of Harris County’s] Northwest Transit Center is also right there, which is an added benefit.”

The proposed track runs through the Cy-Fair area along an existing Union Pacific Corp. line near Hempstead Road. The route will pass near some residential areas in Cy-Fair that come up to the south side of Hwy. 290, as well as Cypress Falls High School, and the southern portion of the city of Jersey Village, where city officials are looking to build a high-density mixed-use center. An estimated 50 homes in the White Oak Falls subdivision along Hwy. 290 will likely be affected under the proposed route.

Jersey Village City Manager Austin Bleess said the city has been briefed on multiple occasions by Texas Central regarding the route through Jersey Village, and he does not anticipate any negative effects on the city.

Reed said the engineering process will determine where and what kind of noise-mitigation elements will be needed, but said she thinks people will be surprised by how quiet the rail is.

“You have to think differently about what a train is,” she said. “[It uses] overhead electric, so there’s no big heavy engine on the front. It never crosses a road at grade, so there’s no clanging and no whistle on the train. It will be the quietest train experience anyone has had.”

Finding funding

Allan Rutter is the division head of freight mobility and infrastructure investment analysis with the Texas Transportation Institute, a research agency based out of Texas A&M University. He said one of the major questions that will need to be answered before construction begins is how Texas Central will raise the funding needed to build the line, estimations of which have fluctuated from $12 billion to $18 billion and which oppositions groups think could end up being even higher.

Texas Central officials said a plan is in place fully laying out how the project will be funded. Reed said the project will be privately funded and will rely on investors putting their own capital at risk. Through private fundraising in Texas, Texas Central was able to fund a feasibility study and some design and engineering work. 

Reed said construction will not begin until financing is in place, but Texas Central is optimistic about attracting investor interest.

“There is a lot of appetite to invest in infrastructure right now and few projects that are at the phase where they are ready to be invested in,” she said.

Although Texas Central will not seek federal funds, Reed said it could use federal loans designed to promote private investment. Any loan would be paid back with interest, she said.

The state of Texas has already taken measures to ensure the rail line is not funded with state money. Following the 2017 legislative session, Texas Gov. Greg Abbott signed a bill prohibiting the state from providing funding for any high-speed rail project. The bill was co-authored by several Houston area legislators, including Lois Kolkhorst and Brandon Creighton. Texas Central officials point out that they did not oppose this bill, and the end result of the 2017 legislative session did not include any bills that would hinder the rail line from moving forward.

Opposition groups are skeptical that Texas Central could attract enough riders to be profitable. Workman said he fears if the rail line does not generate a profit, it would eventually require government intervention to stay afloat, turning into a taxpayer bailout.

“High-speed rail worldwide is subsidized,” Workman said. “It is not a money-making ordeal. It’s a transportation solution.”

Texas Central officials say assumptions that the rail would require government intervention are unfounded and unfair. They have countered that, because the rail is privately funded, its commercial success has been given a much higher priority compared to publicly sponsored lines. The company has referenced the existence or profitable lines connecting Madrid to Barcelona and Tokyo to Osaka.

Approximately 90 percent of the 16 million people who travel between Houston and Dallas annually make the trip by car, Reed said. In a 2016 statewide survey, L.E.K. Consultants interviewed 2,000 Texas drivers. About 83 percent of them said they would consider using the rail line if it was built, Reed said.

“It only takes a small portion to get on the train for our business plan to be successful,” she said. “People are open. Part of that is due to the place we are in our transportation evolution.”

Texas Central projects to have 5 million annual riders roughly two years into operation of the rail line.

Rutter said whether the rail line catches on with Texans will depend on ticket price, future urban congestion and how much people value their time. He said potential investors will likely do their own assessments of Texas Central’s ridership projections before committing capital.

“Long-distance intercity travel is something that is not a complete mystery, but it’s not something that is studied with as much detail as inside urban areas,” Rutter said.

Landowner disputes

Before moving forward with construction, Texas Central will also need to obtain land along the rail’s proposed path. The process could entail the need to use eminent domain—the power to condemn privately owned land and take ownership of it while compensating the land owner—but officials with Texas Central said they would only use that authority as a last resort and are hopeful they would not have to use it at all. The rail’s path along existing utility lines was chosen in part to minimize effects on landowners along the route, officials said.

Texas Central’s ability to use eminent domain hinges on its status as a railroad company in Texas; railroad companies recognized by the state are given authority to use eminent domain as well as access land for surveying purposes. Reed said the company’s status as a railroad is not even in question, noting that Texas Central has already worked with the FRA on the draft environmental statement and is incorporated as a railroad company with the Texas Secretary of State.

A default judgment from Harris County Judge Steven Kirkland in 2017 also called Texas Central a railroad company, but this judgment has since been challenged by opposition groups. A case is currently playing out in a Leon County district court over whether Texas Central has the right to survey land without the landowner’s permission, a ruling Workman said also ties into eminent domain use and could be decided soon, although there is no concrete timeframe.

Both sides of the debate are convinced they are right. In Texas, a railroad company is defined as a company “operating” a rail line, which Workman said disqualifies Texas Central due to the term being in the present tense.

However, Reed said she is confident the company will be recognized as a railroad company.

In the meantime Texas Central is not able to access property if the land owner denies their access. According to the draft statement released in December, somewhere between 7,957 and 8,218 acres of land will need to be acquired for the project. Texas Central announced in 2017 the company had about 30 percent of the parcels needed, a number that has not been updated since.

(Following the publication of this article, Texas Central released a statement to Community Impact Newspaper clarifying that surveying efforts related to the draft EIS were able to move forward using other, acceptable methods to assess property conditions.)

Reed said Texas Central does not make announcements every time it acquires a new parcel, and that it was premature to talk to many of the landowners before the preferred alignment was identified last December. Talks with landowners have been ongoing, she said.

Workman said, regardless of the court case decision, the dispute over eminent domain may be far from over. He said a decision from the Leon County district court would likely be appealed, at which point it would go to the Waco 10th Court of Appeals. Either party could appeal that decision to the Texas Supreme Court, which could decide to hear the case or deny the petition.

“There’s no doubt in my mind it will go the Texas Supreme Court,” Workman said.

Catering to new needs

The line has garnered support from  several Houston-area transportation and development groups, including Transportation Advocacy Group, the North Houston Association and the Cy-Fair Houston Chamber of Commerce. Texas Central officials say the project could inject $36 billion in economic benefits into the state over the next 25 years.

Keith Vrana, co-chair of the Cy-Fair chamber’s transportation committee and co-owner of Consolidated Mills in Cy-Fair, said he thinks the rail line is one of the most important projects in the history of the state.

“We have to find alternatives that fit for Texas, and I am a big advocate for this one,” he said. “We can lead the country into a new transportation solution and paradigm.”

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17 comments
COMMENT
  1. This Uneconomic project is not even Privately Funded today because Texas Central has burned ALL of the Private Investor money and is now using Japanese money, including from the Japanese Government, which in itself is Japanese Public Money. Why is the Japanese so interested in a money losing project? Because of their Proprietary Technology that will help the Japanese Form a Monopoly in Texas. But, the Japanese commitment will make them the Primary Creditor so that they get the Assets through Bankruptcy (This project in no way can prove its Economic Viability; When the Cost rises from $10B to $18B-$20B, and at that same time, all of a sudden the Ridership rises with the cost but with Zero basis to do so, this is an Uneconomic Project). When that happens, the Japanese get everything and will likely never have to pay back the Capital Investment. This trick is called Construction, Operate, and then transfer the debt to somewhere else. Also, Texas Central has already said they will go after the US Government Taxpayer Backed RR Loans. And through bankruptcy, the US Government Loan is 100% at risk. Once the Japanese have the Monopoly established, then they will have the leg up on any additional extensions to the D-H route. Finally, the article mentions “Parcels” as a measurement of “Distance” of the route under control of Texas Central. That is not a Unit of Measurement of Distance. A parcel could provide 60′ of land under track, or one mile of land under track. This is yet another way for Texas Central to mislead the public. Evidence shows that Texas Central has under their control no more than 20% of the route. That means Landowners adding up to 80% of the ROW distance is still under control of Landowners who have already told Texas Central they are not welcome to Survey their property and that they are not interested in selling. That my friend is a major problem for Texas Central. So is Texas Central going to use Eminent Domain, which they have yet to prove to a single Landowner or legal entity, as a “Last Resort” Against Landowners who control 80% of the ROW distance? They can sure try that, but I would not bet on the success of that either!

  2. Correction to story- You have it listed as 30% Of the land needed in the time line. its PARCELS which could be from a 100′ wide lot ( which a large percentage of the Grimes is this case-59 or so very small lots) or 10,000′ wide parcel. Its not acres its not miles its parcels which does not reflect the true milestone.

  3. Texas doesn’t have the population density to support the HSR. And it won’t reduce traffic congestion where the traffic is, in Houston and Dallas. This project will become a tax burden if allowed to be constructed. Furthermore, Texas Central does not have the authority of eminent domain.

    • Texas doesn’t need to have high population density to support HSR. The reason it’s high-speed is because it doesn’t stop. We only need to have high population density where the train stops, and this we have.

      Furthermore, transit networks operate on a hub-and-spoke basis. A savvy builder will stop trains at existing train stations, where local transit networks collect and disperse passengers.

      When someone inaugurates air service, nobody talks about whether it will reduce traffic congestion or ship travel. Trains aren’t supposed to reduce traffic. They’re supposed to provide people with an alternative means of getting where they’re trying to go and getting there faster.

      What is passenger rail did become a tax burden? What difference would it make? Highways are a tax burden. Airports, and the transit networks that serve them, they’re a tax burden. Shipping container facilities are a tax burden. Taxes are the price we pay for civilization.

      The train will use existing right-of-way, so it won’t nee eminent domain, except perhaps in cities. There, municipal governments have the legal tools they need. Houston and Dallas build rail stations all the time.

      • Christie Parker

        “The train will use existing right-of-way, so it won’t nee eminent domain, except perhaps in cities.”

        You know this is a completely false statement correct?

        The train uses very little existing right of way and must purchase the entire route in order for this project to move forward.

        They currently do NOT have the right of eminent domain as they have told many landowners and the public. They lost their court case in Harris County where the judge ruled they did not have eminent domain, were not a railroad and could not survey the landowners property. That court case stands to this date. There is currently a court case in Leon county arguing the merits of them having eminent domain as well.

        Have you looked at the DEIS? There is quite a bit of the route miles away from the utility lines which I am assuming you are referring to as right of way. Almost all of the utility corridor is OWNED by landowners who have granted an easement and not a fee simple agreement. So the land is still owned by the landowner and should not be construed as right of way which is the legal right, established by usage or grant, to pass along a specific route through grounds or property belonging to another. No right of way exists for the train.

        Taxpayers should not subsidize this project nor property owners give up their houses nor land until this developing group proves the public need and necessity of the project and divulges their secret ridership studies. All independent studies show this losing billions and the taxpayers picking up the tab and very low ridership. So let’s not fall into the same trap that California did. We are already up to a more than 20 billion project when it started off as a 10 billion project. No thanks.

      • Ken, do you believe media reports from every said biased company that you personally support based solely on ideals. You’re clearly not an engineer or informed past a few articles that were statements straight from TC that might as well been ads outright rather than just being an ad obfuscated as information. If you like the idea of mass transit, you can just admit your bias in spite of your relative ignorance to the matter, it would come off a lot more sincere than purporting a huge list of “facts” that was just marketing drivel provided by TCR. This project will not help Houston, Dallas, or TX all that much, and will have a huge negative impact on Cypress and all other suburban & rural communities along its path if built.

  4. I have a deep and abiding love for the land that my husband and I live on (has been in the Epps Family for over 150 years) and yet the HSR folks want to come and take if all away. If you want to put feelings into the equation, my husband is a blind, 70 year old man, that knows our home and how to get around in it. I feel that he should not be made to learn a new home. Now to get out of the feelings mode, this monstrosity is not good for whole state of Texas, much less the part that I live on. There is no proof that this boondoggle will be economically feasible. The HSR sent us a letter which stated, “it’s time to get on your land to survey.” Well guess what the operative word there is “your”, it is not their land so no permission is given for them to survey. I did have to call the Ellis County Sheriff’s office to run off 4 trucks of surveyors from Hayden Consultants, Inc. Engineers/Surveyors, they would not tell me who had sent them, but I knew. That same afternoon they were run off another piece of land also in Ellis County. I know of only two people that have given them options around me, but those run out in 2019 and if the HSR can’t get the rest of the land that they want then that is just more money they have wasted. The taxpayers of Texas should never be burdened with paying for private enterprise. Family legacy should never be taken away by private enterprise.

  5. Direct quote from your article:

    “High-speed rail worldwide is subsidized,” Workman said. “It is not a money-making ordeal. It’s a transportation solution”

    “Approximately 90 percent of the 16 million people who travel between Houston and Dallas annually make the trip by car, Reed said. In a 2016 statewide survey, L.E.K. Consultants interviewed 2,000 Texas drivers.” – note: L E K Consultants interviewed 2000 Texas driver (were these drivers residents of either Dallas of Houston?) – only 2000 drivers out of potential 16 MILLION?

    “About 83 percent of them said they would consider using the rail line if it was built, Reed said” – operative word here is ‘consider’

    HSR as described above will not be viable –

    Do most people in favor of the HSR travel between Dallas and Houston? Do these folks in favor of HSR rail realize that most likely the cost will be much higher than air fare? In actuality, do most folks realize the planned rail equipment is NOT compatible with any other equipment used/manufactured on Earth? Forcing any possibility of expansion to only work with the Japanese equipment?

    • “High-speed rail worldwide is subsidized,” Workman said. “It is not a money-making ordeal. It’s a transportation solution.”

      Highways are subsidized. Airports are subsidized. Port facilities are subsidized. Even when you take a bus, your ticket doesn’t cover your full costs of the roads. It’s subsidized.

      When your car leaves your driveway and enters the street, does someone collect a toll? Of course not. Your sales and property taxes pay for it. It’s subsidized.

      Nor does it matter what percentage of respondents to a poll say they would take the train. It’s a business argument. It wins or loses based on investors putting their money at risk.

      “Do these folks in favor of HSR rail realize that most likely the cost will be much higher than air fare?”

      Why don’t we leave pricing strategy to those selling the tickets? If prices are too high, they’ll make more money if they lower them a little. It’s called supply and demand.

      “In actuality, do most folks realize the planned rail equipment is NOT compatible with any other equipment used/manufactured on Earth?”

      This is simply false. Most trains worldwide operate on the same gauge track. Only Spain and the former USSR are different, and global suppliers even compete for equipment there. Plenty of suppliers will compete for this business. “Yellow peril” doesn’t work any more. People are too sophisticated for this.

      • Donovan Maretick

        Ken Duble,
        You are wrong sir. I attended last sessions Land and Resource Management meeting in Austin where they discussed the fact that the tracks used on the Shinkansen trains ran on 1,067mm (3 ft 6 inches) gauge track and the standard gauge side in the United States is 1,435mm (4 Ft 8.5 inches), In Japan, the national railway standard is the 1,067 mm (3 ft 6 in) narrow gauge track. Dual gauge is used where the Shinkansen (bullet train) lines join the main network. Also in the DEIS, it clearly states that the average ticket price is $199 each way. Please take a look at the DEIS in chapter 3 of the 5,647 page report in Table 3.14-22: Annual Ticket Revenue Impacts for all Build Alternatives.
        It easy is to say, let the builders worry about the price, obviously you have no stake in the game like many of us land, home and business owners.
        We know the facts as we eat sleep and breathe them so we can fight this project and protect our way of life. I would ask that you conduct your research prior to posting.
        I would think as a taxpayer, you would promote transparency in both the ridership calculations as well as the financial viability which Texas Central has yet to provide. If they get the loans they seek, this will make the SH130 bankruptcy look small which is a scary thought.

        • Don’t bother with Ken; he’s cleasly biased and just has an affinity for trains/mass transit, no matter if that affinity is practical for the said route. All of his arguments are just canned TCR responses he’s reciting; wouldn’t be surprised if he was younger than 30 and this still chock full of unrealistic notions and ideals.

  6. For the people who live in the path of this project this is a disaster. Their lives and economic stability will be destroyed. For the rest of you Texans, open your wallets wide. When this fails and the “owners” walk away with their financial gain you will all be left supporting this mistake.
    Take heed to what is happening with California’s boondoggle. The money stated to build and operate will never equal what the real costs will be and the ridership needed is not there

  7. To the landowner that have replied. I’m sorry you are having to go through this torture. I hope our Governor Greg Abbott will support our private property rights. This is a bad idea all the way around. Just say NO to the proposed Bullet Train in Texas!

  8. Taxpayers are once again going to be doling out their own hard-earned dollars to foot the bill for a foreign investor boondoggle once this goes belly up and the investors have left us holding the bag.

    Our population density is nowhere near what would be needed to make this a self-sufficient/supporting standard mode of transportation. With the projected cost of a ticket, it is still going to be no different than driving to Hobby or IAH to catch a flight, no time will be saved and the same people who drive between Houston and Dallas now will STILL be driving between Houston and Dallas after this outdated toy train is built.

    • Sounds about right.. I was shadow banned from their fb page for posting a number of questions with documentation and imagery highlighting a number of potential issues for Cypress, TX alone that they will not address. Best I was given is a rep private messaged me afterwards stating that they “appreciated my feedback and would look into it”… right, they’ll look into their bottom line and then laugh at everyone else along the way to the bank. I had a friend post the same thing a week later with the same results.. shadow ban and the EXACT same private message, almost as if it just copied and pasted over and over by a sad lil admin..

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Shawn Arrajj
Shawn Arrajj serves as the editor of the Cy-Fair edition of Community Impact Newspaper where he covers the Cy-Fair and Jersey Village communities. He mainly writes about development, transportation and issues in Harris County.
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