Questions remain for Texas Central high-speed rail slated for Houston

The Texas Central Railway would travel from Houston to Dallas.

The Texas Central Railway would travel from Houston to Dallas.

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Along for the ride
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Along for the ride
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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 October, Spain-based Renfe was named an operating partner. The company also announced in September that it secured a $300 million loan from two Japanese entities.

“This loan is important for many reasons,” Reed 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.”

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.

Opponents of the rail line say several questions still need to be answered, including 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.

While the preferred route identified in December does not pass through Montgomery County, landowners in Harris, Waller and Grimes counties may abut the route and proposed Houston-area stop. Part of the proposed route runs along Hwy. 290 just west of Tomball.

Reed said engineering work is ongoing, and Texas Central hopes the FRA will issue the final environmental impact statement next year, with construction starting 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,” Reed said. “[The Metropolitan Transit Authority of Harris County’s] Northwest Transit Center is also right there, which is an added benefit.”

As the first state to implement high-speed rail, the rail project could boost the state’s economy by attracting businesses near the route and its stops, said Bruce Hillegeist, president of the Greater Tomball Area Chamber of Commerce.

“This really just puts another notch in our hat when it comes to being economically competitive,” he said. “That may not affect us here in Tomball [economically], but we think of [ourselves] as part of the great state of Texas. … In most everything, there’s a ripple effect.”

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 estimated $12 billion to $18 billion needed to build the line.

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.

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.

While Texas Central will not seek federal funds, Reed said it could use federal loans for promoting private investment.

The state of Texas has already taken measures to ensure the rail line is not funded with state money. Following the 2017 legislative session, Gov. Greg Abbott signed a bill prohibiting the state from providing funding for any high-speed rail project. 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.

“Across the world there are no high-speed rail projects that operate at break-even or at a profit,” said state Rep. Cecil Bell Jr., R-Magnolia. “It’s not just an opinion that perhaps it’s not a financially viable option.”

Texas Central officials say assumptions that the rail would require government intervention are unfair,  referencing profitable rail lines between Madrid and Barcelona and between Tokyo and Osaka.

About 90 percent of the 16 million trips annually between Houston and Dallas are by car, Reed said. However, in a 2016 statewide survey, L.E.K. Consultants interviewed 2,000 Texas drivers of which 83 percent said they would consider using the rail line if it was built, Reed said.

According to 2016 data from the U.S. Census Bureau, between 71 percent and 87 percent of residents in each of the six Tomball and Magnolia area ZIP codes own at least two vehicles.

However, of 1,282 Harris County residents surveyed by Community Impact Newspaper in January via Nextdoor—a social networking service—67 percent said they would use the railway. This includes 62.5 percent of Hockley and Tomball residents who responded. Nearly 60 percent of the responding 141 Magnolia residents opposed the project.

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

“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.”

Land, infrastructure concerns

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.

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

In the meantime Texas Central cannot access property if the landowner denies 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 it had about 30 percent of the land parcels needed.

If built, local leaders said they worry the rail will divide rural communities.

U.S. Rep. Kevin Brady, R-The Woodlands, said he believes the only viable route for the project is along I-45, a corridor which is already developed.

“The route of the high-speed rail is all wrong,” said Brady, who has fought the rail at the federal level. “It divides our rural communities, it ruins lands that have been in families for generations, and I think damages our rural culture.”

Stephen David, Tomball resident and Brady’s opponent for U.S. representative in the Nov. 6 election, said although he supports new modes of transportation like the high-speed rail, he does not favor negatively affecting quality of life.

“Inadvertently, whenever we split up communities by putting in railroad tracks, most people aren’t going to try to cross them,” he said. “I don’t want this project to be something that splits the community, throws a rail in the middle of the community, and then one side has something better than the other.”

Unlike other infrastructure, which is open to public use—such as roads and power lines—the high-speed rail has limited access, Bell said. Thus, he said he believes the rail offers no intrinsic value to affected landowners.

Additionally, Bell said the high-speed railway complicates road construction. Once the track is laid, future roads must accommodate the rail line with underpasses or overpasses, which increases the cost of new road projects, Bell said. To keep up with growth, rural communities would have to find funding they do not have, he said.

“The future of rural Texas is in the introduction of new roads and other means to move people and goods around,” Bell said. “Once the great wall of Texas is built, Texas is divided. You’re just going to stymy the growth and development of those communities.”
By 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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