Dallas to Houston in 90 minutes? Texas Bullet Train could make that a reality

A $12-billion high-speed rail system could transform transportation in the Lone Star State.
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A $12-billion high-speed rail system could transform transportation in the Lone Star State.

Fort Worth

Fast track: Firms picked to design, build bullet train from DFW to Houston

By Claire Z. Cardona

The Dallas Morning News

August 14, 2017 03:10 PM

Irving-based Fluor Enterprises and the Lane Construction Corp. have been chosen to operate the high-speed rail line that will carry travelers between Dallas-Fort Worth and Houston, developer Texas Central Partners said Monday.

The announcement comes after more than three years of development by Texas Central, the private company behind the $12-billion-plus venture. The project will be backed by private investors and the company has pledged not to seek public money.

The 240-mile high speed rail line would take travelers between the cities in less than 90 minutes, with trains departing every 30 minutes during peak periods.

The line, which could follow one of several routes, would wind down to Harris County and back at 205 mph.

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The next major step in the process is the fall release of an environmental draft from the Federal Railroad Administration which will identify a preferred path for the train, said Texas Central President Tim Keith. After the environmental statement, the company can identify and engage with every landowner along the preferred rail line, he said.

Construction is expected to begin in late 2018 or early 2019.

Lane Construction is a subsidiary of the Italian construction and civil engineering company Salini Impregilo. Fluor is a multinational engineering and construction firm.

“This underscores the attention the Texas Bullet Train has received from world-class firms, wanting to be part of a project that will revolutionize travel here and generate long-lasting local economic benefits,” Texas Central CEO Carlos Aguilar said in a written statement early Monday.

The selected companies will be working with Texas Central to refine and update the project’s construction plans, schedule and cost expectation, according to the news release.

Texas Central’s news release said it had agreed Fluor and Lane would be the project’s preferred “design-builder” once the design, schedule and implementation is reviewed and approved.

Federal regulators are preparing the environmental impact statement on the project that will determine the final route and station locations. Dallas’ station could be placed just outside of downtown, with the goal of tying it into Dallas Area Rapid Transit’s network.

The mayors of Dallas, Fort Worth and Houston have supported the project. Combined, the metropolitan areas of the three cities account for about 13.1 of Texas’ 28 million people.

Texas Central plans to use the N700-I bullet train system — the same one used by the Central Japan Railway Co. on its Shinkansen line between Tokyo and Osaka.

The company has said ticket prices are expected to be “competitive” with airline tickets.

Rural impact

A 2015 impact study commissioned by the company estimated the project would spur $36 billion in economic benefits over 25 years. An estimated 10,000 jobs a year would be created over four years of construction, and the company would hire 1,000 permanent employees, the study said.

Some landowners and rural residents are skeptical of the claims of economic benefits and say the train would disrupt their way of life.

The Stoneham family’s 1,000-acre ranch is along the rail’s proposed path through Grimes County. The family could lose 50 acres of land that would bisect the property and limit access to grazing pastures.

Some rural residents say they won’t see the economic benefits of the rail line. Many people strongly oppose Texas Central’s ability to use eminent domain to secure land for the project.

The company has said it’s committed to negotiating good-faith offers for the property owners whose land they need, and would only use the eminent domain power as a last resort. It has said construction will take place “to the greatest extent possible” on land already in use or reserved for another transportation or utility.

But opposition group Texans Against High-Speed Rail argues Texas Central shouldn’t qualify as a railroad with powers of eminent domain because it doesn’t operate rail lines.

Texas Central said Monday that Fluor and Lane will not be involved in land acquisition and have no ownership stake in the project.

“We will use our industry experience and proven track record of delivering high-speed rail projects to provide high-value services for this significant infrastructure project,” said Hans Dekker, president of Fluor’s infrastructure business line.

Lane also has experience in transportation and infrastructure projects, including work on parts of Interstate 35 in Fort Worth, Waco, Austin and San Antonio, as well as Texas 360 from Interstate 20 to U.S. 287. It is also a partner in work on the Dallas-to-Denton I-35 Express project.

“We’re eager to be part of the next generation of sustainable infrastructure,” said Robert E. Alger, Lane Construction’s president and CEO. “The project will create benefits for generations to come while providing an innovative transportation alternative for Texas commuters.”

Lawmakers weigh in

Two years ago, a small group of Republican lawmakers from rural counties attempted to derail the project by filing bills that would have removed Texas Central’s power of eminent domain.

Some lawmakers tried again in this year’s legislative session to quash the rail plan, but efforts were unsuccessful. In the end, two bills passed and will go into effect Sept. 1.

One bill, by Sen. Charles Schwertner, R-Georgetown, would prohibit the Legislature from appropriating state money to a high-speed rail project, with some federally required exceptions.

The law would ensure taxpayers would not be held accountable for subsidizing, bailing out or otherwise financially supporting the private venture.

Another by Sen. Brian Birdwell, R-Granbury, deals with safety measures for the rail system.

Kyle Workman, president of the opposition group, thanked the Texas Legislature, which he said “shares our concern about the negative effects” the project could have on the state.

“While we highly doubt they can construct this project without proof of eminent domain or state funds, should they proceed, tax dollars, landowners and communities will be much better protected from this Japanese funded boondoggle,” Workman said in a written statement.

In February, Texas Central said it planned to drop more than a dozen lawsuits against landowners who refused to allow the company to conduct surveys on their property.

High-speed history

Texas’ relationship with high-speed rail dates back to 1989 when the Legislature created the Texas High-Speed Rail Authority to select a group that would build the privately financed system and granted the powers of eminent domain.

The French-American group Texas TGV Corp was awarded the project but failed to raise money and the franchise was revoked. Plans crumbled in the early 1990s under the weight of the cost — about $8.4 billion.

Then in 2013, talk of bullet trains zipping across the state resumed when Texas Central threw its name into the hat for the Houston-Dallas line. The effort was bolstered the next year with mayoral support.

Mayor Mike Rawlings said then, “You’ve got a real operation, not a pie-in-the-sky sort of thing.”

When plans were rolled out a few years ago, the North Texas-to-Houston bullet train was slated to become the country’s first high-speed rail line.

But eyes may be on California to claim the title. Construction is underway on a $20 billion high-speed rail segment that would connect Silicon Valley to Central Valley by 2025, The Mercury News reported.