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Texas Bullet Train Clears Environmental Hurdle

The $15 billion bullet train expected to connect Dallas and Houston cleared an important environmental hurdle Friday, marking a major milestone for the highly-anticipated but controversial project.

The U.S. Department of Transportation’s Federal Railroad Administration signed the Draft Environmental Impact Statement review for the Texas Central Partners LLC high-speed rail project.

“The bullet train is for real, and we’re moving out to 2018 with a big boost of energy,” Tim Keith, Texas Central president, told the Dallas Business Journal in an interview Friday evening.

The 240-mile electrified rail line is expected to move riders between Texas’ two biggest cities in 90 minutes at speeds of 205 miles an hour. Ticket prices would be comparable to that of a plane ticket, and it would be the first rail line of its type in the country.

The next step is a public comment period on the Draft EIS, followed by the Federal Railroad Administration addressing any substantive comments in a Final EIS. The 60-day public comment period will begin when the Draft EIS is published in the Federal Register. The Railroad Administration will hold 10 public hearings in the affected counties in Texas.

The Draft EIS analyzed six end-to-end build alternatives as well as a no-build alternative. The build alternatives included a terminal station in Dallas and an intermediate station in Grimes County near College Station. The Draft EIS also evaluated three Houston terminal station options: the Industrial Site Terminal, the Northwest Mall Terminal and the Northwest Transit Center Terminal.

The Dallas station will be in the Cedars area south of the Kay Bailey Hutchison Convention Center. The Brazos Valley Station in Grimes County will be near Texas 90 and State Highway 30. It would serve Bryan-College Station and include direct shuttle service to Texas A&M University, according to the report.

The FRA determined that train’s route should be located in what’s known as the “utility corridor,” which follows existing electrical infrastructure easements between Dallas and Houston. The area is relatively flat, straight and has soil conditions that would support the rail infrastructure, the documents say.

The environmental statement called utility corridor “the only feasible end-to-end corridor alternative.”

Knowing the alignment is a key development to making the project a reality, Keith said.

“Now we can progress with specific alignments in mind, and we can continue our land options programs with specific alignments in mind,” he said. “It should narrow our focus and design efforts.”

Land options for about 30 percent of the right-of-way necessary has been acquired, and knowing the alignment will allow Texas Central to know which land owners to approach for discussions about acquiring the rest, Keith said.

Some landowners along the potential routes have opposed the project, insisting that a bullet train would disrupt their rural way of life and bring few benefits.

Other next steps include finalizing design and costs and acquiring other necessary state and local permits.

With Friday’s approval, construction could begin in late 2018 or early 2019. The build-out is expected to take four to five years, putting the train on track to roll by 2024, Keith said.

The estimated economic impact of the bullet train over 25 years includes $36 billion of direct economic activity and $2.5 billion in annual tax revenue to the state of Texas, Texas Central officials say. About $125 million has been raised so far for the project.

Texas is also touting the bullet train system as a lure for Amazon’s second headquarters. The high-speed connection could open a range of possibilities, including the option that Amazon workers could live in Houston and work in Dallas, or vice versa, project supporters say.

The signing of the Draft EIS and a similar document Friday for a rail project in Florida shows progress in the transportation department’s efforts to accelerate environmental reviews and project delivery timelines for new infrastructure projects, U.S. Transportation Secretary Elaine L. Chao said. The steps will help the private sponsors move their projects forward, Chao said.

“Safe, accessible and efficient regional rail systems are an important component in the transportation networks of many areas,” Chao said in a statement. “As proposed, these rail projects would increase travel options and promote economic growth in their regions of the country.”

Plenty of hurdles for the Texas project remain.

Project detractors argue that the ridership projections are overly optimistic, and that the privately funded rail project may not be profitable. Estimates from Texas Central Partner predict 5 million riders annually by 2025 and a 10 million riders by 2050.

Most bullet trains require large subsidies from the public. That’s no longer a possibility in Texas after passage of a recent law against it.

In the last state legislative session, over 20 bills were filed that took aim at the project, including some that may have killed the plan. Ultimately, just two bills passed — one ensuring that state taxpayers won’t pick up any costs for the project and the other requiring adequate safety measures.

The rail developers pledged from the outset to not seek state or federal grants.

The proposed high-speed train technology wouldl be built incorporating viaduct structures on a significant part of the alignment to maintain existing road crossings and allow for economic activity to continue. There will be no “at grade crossings,” removing the risk of intersecting with vehicles and allowing for free movement of wildlife, pedestrians and cars.

The environmental assessment is the latest advancement on the train project, including the recent selection of Irving, Texas-based Fluor Enterprises Inc. and The Lane Construction Corp. as the preferred design/build team, with WSP USA conducting engineering work on their behalf.

The report incorporates input from thousands of comments by the public, including landowners, community groups, elected officials and others. An independent consultant managed by the FRA solicited, compiled and reviewed the public responses and technical reviews.

SOURCE: Dallas Business Journal