Future funding sources still up in air
Plans for a high-speed rail line connecting Houston with the Dallas-Fort Worth and Austin regions are slowly gaining momentum as local and state agencies, both public and private, explore options on how best to build a potential line. Those options include where the funding may come from and where the line would be built.
"High-speed intercity connection alternatives should make it easier to accommodate growth and population increases in all parts of the Texas Triangle, without having to rely on roads and bridges to connect the cities," said Bill Rowden, co-chair of the Cy-Fair Houston Chamber of Commerce transportation committee.
Houston to Austin
Although a Houston-to-Dallas route is at the top of the Texas Department of Transportation's wish list for high-speed rail, connecting Houston to Austin through passenger rail has also been identified as a priority by mobility planners. A TxDOT study completed earlier this year has placed one potential line running along Hwy. 290, starting downtown and possibly looping north to College Station, back south to Giddings and on to Austin.
The speed for the route would not reach more than 110 mph, which means it would be designated as intercity passenger rail, rather than high-speed rail. Costs for the proposed routes range from $972 million to $1.2 billion, according to TxDOT.
"The most significant and costly part is getting into the metro areas and business districts because of the amount of development that's there and the lack of space [in which] to put something new," said Jennifer Moczygemba, rail system section director for TxDOT.
Although rail lines already exist along Hwy. 290, there are issues with right-of-way, abandoned tracks and infrastructure that need to be addressed before construction can start. Several portions of the line also have curvature, which needs to be straightened out or rebuilt.
The Gulf Coast Rail District is also studying a route for commuter rail from inner Houston to Hempstead, which would run along Hwy. 290, similar to the TxDOT project.
"The [TxDOT] line was envisioned to be a seamless one-seat trip all the way through, but if you wanted to go to Houston and stop before the central business district at a place where the intercity train won't stop, you could get off in Hempstead and get to your stop," Moczygemba said.
Potential routes for a high-speed rail line in Texas vary. A TxDOT report suggests a route could use a line owned by the Burlington Northern Santa Fe rail line through Teague, north of College Station. Another route follows a Union Pacific line along Hwy. 290 through Hempstead and College Station. Or a new line could be constructed on a greenfield route that parallels I-45, which would mean starting from scratch and building a new rail line.
"There is a need for the rail connection between Houston and Dallas-Fort Worth because they are two of the fastest growing regions in the entire country," said Maureen Crocker, executive director of the Gulf Coast Rail District. "The main connector between the two is I-45 North, and there are sections that are extremely congested. If population and demand for those routes keeps going, the airlines won't be able to meet those needs."
Former Harris County Judge Robert Eckels is targeting existing infrastructure—including rail lines and right-of-ways—for his Houston-to-Dallas high-speed rail project through Texas Central High Speed Rail, an affiliate of the Central Japan Railway Company, which has high-speed rail lines in Tokyo, Nagoya and Osaka. He envisions a private rail as one that could make multiple stops in Houston, but a specific route has not yet been decided.
"I would anticipate within the Houston region you would have two or three [passenger] collector stops," Eckels said. "The real interesting part of this project is that the discipline of the market drives our decision-making. [Where potential stops are located depends on] where we can get riders to pay for the system."
Eckels said their project could be on the ground by 2020 at a cost in the multiple billions of dollars. A trip on a line operated by TCHSR could cost the traveler between $100 and $125, and take about 90 minutes, he said.
As is the case with most major transportation projects in Texas, funding is one of the major roadblocks facing a publicly funded high-speed rail line.
"We don't have a specific pot of money to use for rail projects in Texas," Moczygemba said. "Several years ago we had significant pots of money coming from the federal side through the Federal Railroad Administration, because there was $8 billion given out to states through an application process, so that's where we got money for some of our studies."
Another $2.5 billion was allocated the next year, but nothing else since, which means TxDOT is uncertain as to what funding for intercity rail will be going forward.
"However, one thing we're looking at is the potential for public-private partnerships," Moczygemba said. "With some of the studies we are completing, it puts us in a good position to look at the potential for having private partners come in and work with us."
Eckels said the TCHSR is not seeking public or federal money for their project, but would consider a public-private partnership with TxDOT.
"It would depend on the role, what conditions would come with the federal funds," Eckels said. "But the rail could be built more quickly and more economically without federal funds. We look for TxDOT to be a creative partner."
Eckels said the project is still in the "very early stages" and that TCHSR is analyzing route proposals, environmental issues and engineering studies. He said a market study is also being conducted to determine revenue sources, equity and debt. The study, Eckels said, could be completed by the end of the year.