High-speed rail plans taking shape

A. Lee Graham lgraham@bizpress.net

Ensuring Fort Worth’s place on a proposed high-speed rail line could boil down to dollars and cents as engineers and transportation officials ponder plans that could reshape local and statewide public transit.

“Building in the urban core will cost more than between cities,” said Steve Mattingly, a University of Texas at Arlington civil engineer who conducted a feasibility study for bringing bullet trains into Dallas-Fort Worth.

The study, conducted between September 2011 and August 2013, found that constructing track between “pair cities” such as Dallas and Houston would require less funding than laying track within more congested urban areas such as the stretch between Fort Worth and Dallas.

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“That’s why the primary focus has been getting to downtown Dallas but not Fort Worth or Arlington at this point,” Mattingly said. While privately owned Texas Central Railway, with offices in Houston, and Central Japan Railway Co., are studying a Dallas-to-Houston route, transportation officials closer to Fort Worth hope to ensure their community’s place on bullet trains that would allow riders to reach Houston from Fort Worth in 90 minutes.

The two plans are being handled separately, with privately owned Texas Central Railway overseeing the Dallas-to-Houston vision and the Texas Department of Transportation and North Central Texas Council of Governments, as well as Fort Worth Mayor Betsy Price, Dallas Mayor Mike Rawlings and Arlington Mayor Robert Cluck, championing a rail route linking their respective communities.

“Our geographic scope is a Dallas-to-Fort Worth connection, and so we are looking at that basically to ensure that Fort Worth, Arlington and the west side of the Metroplex are connected to the system,” said Bill Meadows, presiding officer of an as-yet-unnamed high-speed rail commission approved in late January by the Texas Transportation Commission.

Meadows, former commissioner of the Texas Transportation Commission and former Fort Worth city councilman, stressed that talks are preliminary. Really preliminary.

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“We don’t even know if it’ll be a seven- or nine-member commission. It hasn’t even been named yet,” Meadows said. Meanwhile, Texas Central Railway remains committed to launching high-speed rail between Houston and Dallas by 2021.

“We still think it will be operational by 2021,” said Robert Eckels, a Harris County judge now serving as president of Texas Central Railway.

Explaining the plan to Fort Worth transportation officials and elected leaders last October at a Tarrant Regional Transportation Coalition meeting, Eckels envisioned 205-mph bullet trains zipping from Fort Worth to Dallas in 12 minutes.

The trains would be the same Shinkansen N700 models currently used in Japan.

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Bringing such trains to Texas could become reality if the Dallas-to-Houston plan reaches fruition. After evaluating 97 U.S. “pair cities” — geographic corridors with two major municipalities — Central Japan Railway Co. chose North Texas and its proximity to Houston.

The Houston-Dallas connection was found “the most innately financeable project in the U.S.,” Eckels said at the October meeting. Still, constructing track between Dallas and Houston would cost an estimated $10 billion in private funding, which would come from a combination of Texas, U.S. and overseas investors, Eckels said.

“It would come mostly from domestic corporate bonds we might issue, credit from Japanese banks,” Eckels said.

But taxpayers eventually may foot part of the proposed track linking Fort Worth and Dallas.

“My bet is that it will end up being a public-private partnership,” said Price, who has championed high-speed rail and other public transportation options as a soaring population continues to choke freeways. She insists that many will take advantage of public transit – even in Texas, whose fiercely independent culture and automotive love affair seem inextricably linked.

“When you see polling on mass transit, most people seem to understand that it will be hard for us to ever pour enough concrete to accommodate this growth,” Price said of building new freeways and expanding existing ones.

Passenger volume and project costs are two critical pieces of the equation, with each train able to carry between 300 and 500 passengers, seat two to three per row and run on dedicated track. Trains would run every half hour for a project expected to cost “multiples of billions of dollars,” said Eckels, noting that route selection and station locations could dramatic alter project costs.

“It can change your price $500 million to $1 billion just to move a station a half mile,” said Eckels.

Meanwhile, for the Fort Worth-to-Dallas route, not only has the newly created high-speed rail commission not been named, but station locations, hub cities, budget amounts and project timelines have yet to be determined.

“It’s way preliminary,” Meadows said of the high-speed rail concept.

Though potential Texas routing has not been decided, track likely would be at ground level, or at grade, between Dallas and Houston and other pair cities. That’s because such surface is largely flat and uninterrupted by buildings and other structures, making linear track placement simpler than in urban areas, which typically require more overhead track that costs much more money.

Key to keeping costs down is right-of-way access.

“One of the major challenges that we face in the urban core is we have limited right of way available,” said Mattingly, just one finding of the study he oversaw for the Texas Department of Transportation.

Mattingly and a 12-member team comprising several UTA colleagues, as well as staff researchers from the University of North Texas, were paid about $350,000 to conduct the study.

“I was surprised that it looks like we could utilize existing Texas right-of-way and achieve a level of performance we’d be able to achieve,” Mattingly said.

“Urban areas will still be a problem, but urban areas will be pretty much a problem for any new rail line,” Mattingly said.

The study found that each of the routes — Dallas to Houston, Dallas to San Antonio, San Antonio to Houston and Houston to Waco — could accommodate high-speed rail within existing TxDOT right of way, which would lower construction costs and shorten construction time.

“Right-of-way land negotiations would be kept to a minimum. Environmental and community impacts would be minimal, as well,” Mattingly said in a university news release late last year.

Several months later, interest in hopping aboard the plan has only mounted.

“The next step is the [state] transportation commission naming the rail commission, probably in February or March, and then staffs of the Regional Transportation Commission and TxDOT working together to outline the scope of work and the plan. It’s still very much in the preliminary stage,” Meadows said.

Yet it’s foremost on many minds.

“This is a game-changer for the region. It’s a very big deal,” Price said.