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Houston-Dallas’ High-Speed Rail Line: Full Steam Ahead

Federal officials have given approval for Texas Central Railroad’s planned high-speed rail line that will run from Houston to Dallas. But many are opposed to the bullet train as analysis predicts that it could displace 235 homes.

(TNS) — Federal officials have issued final approvals to backers of a Houston-to-Dallas high-speed rail line, further clearing the way for construction of the proposed line, in a move all but certain to face ongoing challenges from opponents.

Texas Central Railroad, the company planning to operate trains from Houston to Dallas with a stop near College Station, said early Monday that the Federal Railroad Administration had issued both the Record of Decision that ends the environmental analysis and the Rule of Particular Applicability that governs the safety standards the Japanese-developed trains must use.

“This is the moment we have been working towards,” said Carlos Aguilar, CEO of Texas Central Railroad.

Railroad administration officials submitted the final rules Sept. 11 and made them publicly available Monday. Company officials — who less than a decade ago expected construction to cost $10 billion, now say building it will cost “around $20 billion,” with construction possibly starting in the first half of next year. Skeptics said that simply will not and should not happen, criticizing the company and regulators for overlooking flaws with the plan.

“This project has been flawed from the beginning and the FRA has ignored calls from concerned property owners, safety professionals, and even other rail companies,” said Taylor Ward, spokesperson for ReRoute the Route, formed to oppose the project.

With the two approvals in hand, Texas Central can continue final designs and construction of the project. To start building the line, the company needs the go-ahead from the Surface Transportation Board, though the FRA approvals make most of that process perfunctory.

The rule’s governing the safety standards for the Japanese Shinkansen trains are a first for U.S. rail officials, and mark the second privately-led project in America to clear its reviews for true high-speed rail. California's public high-speed rail still is developing its Los Angeles-to-San Francisco system that travels more than 200 mph, while Brightline — which operates 150 mph trains in Florida — said in July it will break ground later this year on a line from Los Angeles to Las Vegas at speeds up to 200 mph.

In Texas a consortium of companies, including Italian construction giant Webuild, formerly called Salini Impregilo, Central Japan Railway — builder of the bullet trains that will be the basis for the Texas trains — and Spanish rail operator Renfe, are all hired to handle various parts of the building and operations of the system.

Though development involves global companies, Texas Central and supporters, including elected officials in Houston and Dallas, note the company is based in Texas and the companies will hire thousands of locals to build and operate it. Some, such as Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner, said new travel modes will define how the metro areas grow and cooperate.

“The construction of high-speed rail will have a generational impact, creating thousands of jobs right here in Houston and injecting billions of dollars into our local businesses,” Turner said.

At speeds of more than 200 mph, officials said the trip between Houston and Dallas will take 90 minutes, with trains traveling along a sealed corridor mostly following a utility right of way through rural Texas. The Houston stop is planned for the current site of Northwest Mall, near U.S. 290 and Loop 610.

“Texas Central is ready to build and will proceed to construction as soon as possible to contribute to the nation’s COVID-19 recovery,” the company said in a statement.

That likely is easier said than done, however, given the intense opposition by rural residents and local, state and federal officials who for years have doubted the company’s claims.

“They hoped to break ground many many years ago,” U.S. Rep. Kevin Brady, R-The Woodlands, told a crowd of train opponents on Feb. 19. “They are still saying they will break ground this year. No they will not.”

Many critics previously said they expect multiple lawsuits to halt construction, if necessary. Opponents argue the project will ruin the character of many rural communities and properties. The federal analysis estimates the rail line will displace 235 homes, 42 businesses and permanently affect more than 3,500 acres of farmland.

In doing so, opponents argue the line forever will alter the landscape with electrical lines and berms to elevate the tracks.

“They have also heard that Texas Central’s plan completely disregards flood catastrophes like the area has seen in very recent years,” Ward said.

Should it fail, Brady and others said, taxpayers will be asked to bail it out, which is why they urged Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao to shelve any federal work on it last April, citing the pandemic. Cries to keep taxpayer money away from the project have intensified as talk of COVID-related infrastructure stimulus continues and some speculate the company could try to tap those funds.

“We are hopeful Texas lawmakers — state and federal — will urge President Trump that not a single federal taxpayer dollar is spent on this insolvent and fatally flawed project,” Ward said.

The company and opponents since 2014 have sparred over the accuracy of claims both for and against the project, including estimates that the line would carry 6 million passengers annually in 2029 and 10 million a year by 2050. The figures, from an assessment paid for by Texas Central, long have been disputed by opponents who say they are overly optimistic and factor for practically all future travel growth in the region choosing the train. The company defends them as accurate based on expected growth and increasing traffic along Interstate 45.

Even who is paying for the project remains in dispute. Texas Central has said since 2016 it is privately-funded — much of the investment coming from the Japan Bank of International Cooperation which aims to export Japanese technology. Company officials, however, have said they may look at federal loan programs open to most railroads and public agencies to finance some of the project, leading critics to accuse them of seeking public money.

Expected to cost at least $19 billion based on the federal assessment, critics have said they believe the project potentially will cost double that, making it unlikely it ever gets built, especially as the economy surrounding the pandemic looks uncertain.

“Since their conception, Texas Central has lied to its investors and Texans about this project,” State Rep. Ben Leman, R-Brenham, said last week, lashing out at the company’s use of a Cayman Islands business entity to hold deeds for land purchased for the project in Texas.

©2020 the Houston Chronicle. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

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