TxDOT narrows route option list for proposed high-speed rail line

The Texas Department of Transportation has narrowed the possible locations for a proposed 240-mile high-speed rail project between Houston and Dallas to two possible routes.



James Maughan, environmental impact statement lead for the Federal Railroad Administration, said the possible routes include the Burlington Northern Santa Fe rail route near Hwy. 249 and a utility corridor near Hwy. 290.



Maughan said nine routes were evaluated from the standpoint of economics, construction costs, travel time, environmental concerns and economic viability—how many passengers can be expected to use the rail.



"We did a comparison based on those factors," Maughan said. "Two of the nine alignments seemed to be advantageous in all categories."



Maughan said the BNSF option scored highly as a potential route because it is already a rail corridor.



The high-speed rail project is being proposed and would be developed by Texas Central Railway, a private, for-profit group. The multibillion dollar rail project will be funded through private money and will not require any public funds, according to TCR officials.



Ticket prices are expected to compare to airline tickets.



Several of the initial proposed routes traveled along I-45. However, the corridor was eliminated from future consideration, Maughan said. The I-45 corridor was designed for automobiles to travel up to 100 mph, he said. However, the high-speed train planned for the project—using Japanese technology—travels 205 mph, so the curves along the route would be problematic.



"The I-45 corridor we looked at closely and gave it full consideration, but compared to the others, it did not score as well," Maughan said.



Maughan said the potential I-45 route also has several entrances and exits into developments, such as fast food restaurants and hotels, that would hinder the development of the rail.



"The utility corridor has no exit and entrances, so we avoid that problem," he said. "[The] BNSF [route], there's some development, but not anywhere near the degree as the I-45 route."



In a letter sent to TxDOT, The Woodlands Township has asked the agency to reconsider the I-45 corridor in their environmental impact statement evaluation citing projected population increases.



"In Montgomery County alone, the population is projected to increase from 500,000 to 1.1 million by 2040," the township stated in its letter. "This fact argues for inclusion of the [I-45] corridor in the [environmental impact statement] evaluation."



Although the two proposed routes have been selected, Texas Central Railway continues to receive public input on the project.



"We have conducted extensive outreach to gather public input, and we continue to seek comments and opinions," said Travis Kelly, vice president of government relations for TCR. "We've found general support and excitement about the project, and people in affected areas have expressed some concerns. Many important details will come out of the EIS process."



Environmental impact statement



Under the National Environmental Protection Act, an EIS is required on major project proposals—such as high-speed rail—and analyzes projects that may have a significant effect on the environment.



Part of the EIS review process includes the FRA approving the route. TCR has to have the environmental review carried out on the approved route to ensure the route is in accordance with federal law. Currently in the early stages of the EIS, the process will take 18–24 months to complete, Kelly said.



"The EIS process is led by the FRA and TxDOT," said Shaun McCabe, vice president of environmental and engineering for TCR. "The environmental process will help determine proposed routes, station locations and, as a result, will significantly inform the overall cost of the project. The process involves seeking public input from people living along the corridors."



Maughan said the FRA is still considering input from the public as to the advantages and disadvantages of the corridors being considered.



Following the completion of the EIS and a decision on a final alignment, TCR anticipates a four-year construction period followed by one year of testing and commissioning before accepting the first paying riders, Kelly said.



Depending on how long the EIS takes, TCR could break ground by the end of 2016 or early 2017, TCR President Robert Eckels said.



A project unique to the U.S., the train would travel from Houston to Dallas in 90 minutes, according to TCR.



The rail will use bullet train technology, a design that has been in use in Japan for 50 years. Eckels said wrecks on these trains are uncommon compared with other trains.



He said not only could a high-speed rail system be an alternative to further taxpayer-funded construction projects along I-45, but Eckels said he believes high-speed rail will be a boon to economic development and growth in Texas.



For additional information on the project and proposed routes, visit



www.texascentral.com and



www.dallashoustonhsr.com.



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