Feature Illustration (above): Texas Central concept of a bullet train overpass. Courtesy: Texas Central.
by Edmond Ortiz
Officials behind Texas Central, the private partnership planning a high-speed rail line between Houston and Dallas/Fort Worth, remain confident they could begin construction as early as the end of 2019.
Political and business leaders in Houston and Dallas are supporting the project. But some state legislators and a group advocating for rural landowners are doing their best to slow the company’s momentum, if not stop it altogether.
Texas Central seeks to design, construct, finance and operate a passenger train service linking the state’s biggest metropolitan regions by a 90-minute commute.
Such a rail line would have one stop in the Brazos Valley and, as officials and supporters say, would offer a cost-effective alternative to the nearly 50,000 commuters who weekly travel between Dallas and Harris counties.
If all goes as proposed, construction on the 240-mile line could last five years and cost from $12 billion to $15 billion. The company has raised more than $450 million total in pre-construction private funding.
Once Texas Central secures safety and environmental clearances–which it hopes happens before the end of 2019–the company will raise the money necessary for construction. Company officials estimate the project will create 10,000 direct jobs per construction year, and 1,500 full-time positions to operate the railway.
Texas Central is promoting its high-speed rail line as a safe, environmentally efficient system that will help reduce vehicular congestion between the two re-gions. Central Japan Railway Company (JRC), a renowned operator of high-speed passenger rail, is one of the technology advisors on Texas Central’s project.
JRC will introduce its Shinkansen bullet train technology, which is wholly electric and emits a fraction of carbon that the average commercial jet emits every passenger mile. Since its inception in 1964, more than 5 billion passengers have used the Tokaido Shinkansen system, which links Japan’s biggest metropolitan areas. No accidents have taken place on this system.
However, as Texas Central works to secure rights-of-way along the proposed path of the rail line, landowner and taxpayer advocates and state lawmakers have thrown up some roadblocks. In early April, state legislators opposed to the project added a rider to the Texas Senate’s proposed 2020-21 state budget.
The provision would prevent state funds from being used on high-speed passenger rail projects, and would bar the Texas Department of Transportation (TxDOT) from helping Texas Central to coordinate right-of-way acquisitions. No such language exists in the Texas House’s budget.
Company officials have said the provision, if part of the final approved state budget, could delay construction and spur litigation.
“In order to get the federal permits necessary, the project has been working with the Federal Railroad Administration and 19 agencies, including TxDOT,” Holly Reed, the company’s managing director of external affairs, told VBX.
“That coordination and planning is necessary to ensure the best designs and planning result in a project with the least amount of impacts. A restriction like the budget rider currently being contemplated is designed to cause confusion and slow the project down. It does nothing to result in better design or change the fact that no state appropriations will be utilized.”
Texas Central is looking at federal loan programs such as Railroad Rehabilitation and Improvement Financing (RRIF) and Transportation Infrastructure Finance and Innovation Act (TIFIA) to help finance the project.
The preferred route for the Texas Central bullet train would connect downtown Dallas to downtown Houston through the Brazos Valley. Map courtesy of Texas Central.
Company representatives have explained that such federal loans are similar to those offered by a private bank or other financier. They add that Texas Central does not want to repeat errors made by the state of California, which last decade hired a small team of consultants to oversee design and construction of its multi-billion-dollar bullet train system.
California’s high-speed rail project is now 13 years behind schedule, $44 billion over the original $33 billion estimate, and has been scaled down from 520 miles to 165 miles for the time-being.
“Texas Central has committed to take no state appropriations or federal grant dollars to build or operate the high-speed train. This is a unique approach and ensure fiscal responsibility and close management to ensure the project is built on time an on budget,” Reed said.
But project detractors say that use of federal loans translates into taxpayers subsidizing a privately held railway. Texans Against High Speed Rail (TAHSR) is a leading opponent of Texas Central’s project.
TAHSR Chairman/President Kyle Workman told VBX the way that Texas Central proposes building and operating its bullet train system goes against the values of Texans and taxpayers.
“Use of eminent domain to take private property, where there’s no public necessity (for high-speed rail), and inevitable taxpayer subsidies are why we oppose this,” he told VBX. “(Texas Central is) proclaiming it’s entirely subsidized. That’s a con.”
Additionally, Workman said, construction and long-term operation of a high-speed train would spur noise, harm the environment, and disrupt local business and vehicular traffic along the rail line, especially in rural areas.
“The state of Texas needs to be protected here, not just landowners,” he added.
State law permits railroad operators to have land condemned for a project. But a state district judge based in Leon County, in the railway’s path, ruled in a lawsuit earlier this year that because Texas Central is not (yet) running trains, it cannot be called a train operator.
Texas Central points to a 2016 decision by a Harris County district judge that it is a railroad company, as defined by the state’s transportation code, and has a right to operate as such toward planning a high-speed rail.
Reed said Texas Central will appeal the Leon County decision: “We are confident we will win that case on appeal. None of the other cases have resulted in a decision whether Texas Central is a railroad or interurban electric railroad.”
Texas Central has to date acquired 30% of the parcels needed for the route. It now controls more than 50% of the route in several counties.
“We hope to not have to use eminent domain and come to agreements with the landowners. Texas Central is committed to being a good neighbor – and that includes how we purchase the land as well as how we operate the train,” Reed said.
A Central Japan Railway Company bullet train riding an elevated rail in Japan. Photo courtesy of Texas Central Partners LLC.
Back at the state capital, a House subcommittee was recently formed to address a number of bills designed to stop or slow high-speed rail in Texas. Groups such as Texas Rail Advocates (TRA) have opposed several rail-related bills submitted this legislative session, including:
- House Bill 4053 —authorization of construction of an electric railway on or across a road, street, alley, square, or county/city property;
- House Bill 1987 — revising reporting requirements regarding eminent domain authority;
- Senate Bill 975—compatibility of a high-speed rail facility with multiple types of train technology;
- House Bill 709—prohibiting the issuance of private activity bonds for building high-speed rail facilities.
TRA President Peter LeCody reported May 4 that three anti-rail bills the TRA opposes made it out of their House committees and on to House Calendars. However, May 9 is the deadline for bills to be heard on the House floor.
LeCody told VBX that Texas Central is wise to focus on private financing to fund its project. He added a Dallas/Houston bullet train would “give a mega-jolt to the Texas economy” with the thousands of jobs it could create.
“A public highway pays no property taxes to local communities while a private entity will pay taxes on their rail infrastructure to benefit local schools, police and fire, city and county government and more,” LeCody said.
He continued: “Many of the rural counties that are fighting the high-speed rail project could use a shot in the arm from more property taxes coming in to their revenue stream.”
LeCody said continued population and commercial growth across Texas, especially in the Dallas and Houston areas, deem necessary a dynamic mass transit option such as high-speed passenger rail. The Dallas-Fort Worth and Greater Houston metro areas each have populations of about 7 million.
“We have to look to more than just asphalt and concrete highways to move our people and goods in the future as the ‘triangle” of North Texas, Austin-San Antonio and Greater Houston merge closer together.”
Aside from working to secure the required funds, permits and properties, Texas Central has been refining its rail system design and engineering. Global construction and engineering firm Salini Impregilo, which has built more than 4,000 miles of railway infrastructure, is leading the civil engineering consortium.
Salini Impregilo is the parent company of Lane Construction Corp., which agreed to serve as design-builder of the rail line.
Texas Central has tapped key project figures, including naming Houston-based Resource Environmental Solutions as its provider of mitigation services last February.
Last October, the partnership named Renfe, a leading developer of high-speed rail services, its train operating partner. Renfe runs 5,000 trains daily world-wide. And in May 2018, Texas Central announced it had agreed with Amtrak on allowing passengers to use Amtrak’s reservation system to buy tickets to travel through both Amtrak and Texas Central.
Edmond Ortiz is a San Antonio-based freelance reporter and editor. He has worked for the San Antonio Express-News and Prime Time Newspapers. He is a contributor to Virtual Builders Exchange and the Rivard Report. His Twitter handle is @satscribe.