Township asks TxDOT to reconsider I-45 for high-speed rail

Despite the Texas Department of Transportation scrapping the I-45 corridor for consideration for a potential high-speed rail route between Houston and Dallas, The Woodlands Township is asking the agency to reconsider its decision.



Miles McKinney, director of intergovernmental relations for The Woodlands Township, said the township sent a letter to TxDOT and the Federal Railroad Administration Nov. 13 requesting the I-45 route be reconsidered.



TxDOT has narrowed the potential rail lines to include the Burlington Northern Santa Fe rail route near Hwy. 249 and a utility corridor near Hwy. 290, said James Maughan, environmental impact statement lead for the Federal Railroad Authority.



"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.



The township argued that expected increases in population warrant the I-45 route to be considered for potential high-speed rail.



"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 to TxDOT. "This fact argues for inclusion of the IH-45 corridor in the [environmental impact statement] evaluation."



Maughan said nine alternative routes were evaluated from the standpoint of economics, construction costs, travel time, environmental concerns and economic viability—how many passengers can be expected to ride 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 I-45 corridor was designed for automobiles to travel up to 100 miles per hour. The high-speed train planned for the project, which is used in Japan, travels 205 miles per hour, so the curves on that route would be problematic, he said.



Maughan also said a potential I-45 route has several entrances and exits into developments like 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," Maughan said. "BNSF, there's some development, but not anywhere near the degree as the I-45 route. The BNSF is scored highly because it's already a rail corridor."



In its letter, the township addressed how the I-45 corridor for the high-speed rail would affect congestion on the highway.



"Removing some IH-45 commuter traffic would produce large and significant environmental benefits and, in a public/private partnership, possibly more than justify the higher capital costs," the letter stated. "The township does not want to see this opportunity foreclosed until the combined commuter and [high-speed rail] potential has been examined."



The high-speed rail project is being proposed and would be developed by Texas Central High-Speed Rail, a private for-profit group.



The rail would be paid for through private money and not require public money.



The train would travel from Houston to Dallas in 90 minutes at 205 miles per hour, according to TCR. The rail will use bullet train technology, a design that has been in use in Japan for 50 years, and ticket prices are expected to compare to airline tickets, according to the TCR.



McKinney said TCR may be interested in building the rail line along the cheapest route, and the I-45 corridor may prove to be too expensive.



"The I-45 corridor may cost a little bit more," he said. "We could also ask them to build a station north of downtown Houston. It's a logical place for us. You get Grand Parkway, I-45 and the Hardy Toll Road all right there because you bring people in from north, east, west and south."



Now that TxDOT has made an early determination on potential routes, the environmental impact review portion of the project is underway.



Shaun McCabe, vice president of environmental and engineering for TCR, said there are several federal and state regulatory requirements and approvals that comprise the environmental process for the project.



The EIS is part of a process under the National Environmental Protection Act that is required on major project proposals such as the rail proposal. An EIS describes and analyzes projects such as the constructing and operating of a railroad, which 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.



McCabe said the EIS process takes about two years to complete.



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



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