TX: Dallas-Fort Worth to Houston high-speed rail: Hurdles remain but some have hope for 2024

Jan. 5, 2024
Transportation planners in Texas are aiming to reignite the vision dating back to the 1980s of connecting the state’s largest metro areas with high-speed rail.

Transportation planners in Texas are aiming to reignite the vision dating back to the 1980s of connecting the state’s largest metro areas with high-speed rail.

Unlike the past, they may have federal help on their side this time.

In December, the U.S. Department of Transportation’s Federal Railroad Administration announced awards of half a million dollars each to proposed high-speed rail corridors that would connect Fort Worth to Dallas and Dallas to Houston. The long-term vision for planners: carry travelers on a one-seat ride through the three cities in less than two hours.

The money from the Corridor ID grant program is largely set aside to develop a scope, schedule and cost estimate and pales in comparison to the overall costs to construct the routes. But planners and proponents of high-speed rail are hopeful that federal funding with help from the bipartisan infrastructure law can jump-start these projects.

“The selection of our Fort Worth to Houston corridor into FRA’s corridor identification program means the federal government has at least recognized that there is some merit in connecting the large urban areas of Dallas, Fort Worth and Houston together,” said Dan Lamers, the senior program manager for transportation planning at the North Central Texas Council of Governments.

The proposed routes

In the Dallas-Fort Worth area, the North Central Texas Council of Governments is leading the study for the corridor between the two cities and has proposed building a high-speed rail project along Interstate 30.

With a possible top speed of around 180 mph, planners project travel between both ends to take 23 minutes by high-speed rail with a stop in Arlington. The 31-mile drive from downtown Dallas to downtown Fort Worth can take up to an hour or more, depending on traffic.

The proposal has two underground stations: one in the southeast corner of downtown Fort Worth next to Fort Worth Central Station and another in Arlington’s entertainment district, according to Brendon Wheeler, the project manager for the corridor and program manager for transportation planning at the council.

Traveling into Dallas, Wheeler said, the route would move northeast from I-30 near North Hampton Road and travel along a Union Pacific Railroad alignment. From there it would head downtown, curve south and stop at an elevated station near Cadiz and Austin streets in the Cedars neighborhood, selected by Texas Central, the private company leading the Dallas to Houston project.

Amtrak announced in August it is exploring a partnership with Texas Central for a proposed route that would shuttle passengers from Dallas to Houston in about 90 minutes (the 220-mile drive between the proposed stations takes about at least three-and-half hours). The proposal, which has been in development for a decade, calls for the use of Japan’s Shinkansen bullet trains that would largely travel along high-voltage transmission lines, with a stop in the Brazos Valley, between College Station and Huntsville.

The council of governments is in the process of completing its environmental review, as required by the National Environmental Policy Act. Lamers said they’re hopeful it’s cleared by the end of this year.

In 2020, the FRA approved Texas Central’s project, issuing an environmental impact statement.

The reported benefits

In planning documents, the council of governments has said high-speed rail can help meet increased travel demand as Dallas-Fort Worth grows over time. Project managers wrote they expect the region’s population could rise from about 7.9 million (according to the 2022 census) to a little over 11 million people by 2045.

Lamers has said the nearby proximity of DFW International Airport to a high-speed rail system can make Dallas-Fort Worth “a hub of travel within the state of Texas.” The route would turn an-hour commute by Trinity Railway Express, the commuter rail line between the cities, into about 20 minutes.

It would also add a transit option to Arlington, one of the largest U.S. cities without a public mass transit system.

Texas Central has claimed its plan is estimated to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by over 100,000 tons per year, and its construction and operations would create thousands of jobs.

Andy Kunz, the president and CEO of the U.S. High-Speed Rail Association, said the new mode of transportation can help “decarbonize our transportation sector,” reduce congestion and boost American manufacturing. In addition, he said it will also open up the opportunity for more people, referred to as super commuters, to live in one city and work in another.

“One high-speed rail line can actually open access to a million houses that are already affordable and already built,” Kunz said.

What may have Amtrak interested in the Dallas-to- Houston corridor is the large population of the metro areas, the distance between them and the favorable terrain, said Allan Rutter, a senior research scientist and freight analysis program manager at Texas A&M’s Transportation Institute.

“You’ve got two urban areas with relatively about 8 million each,” Rutter said. “They’re separated by a really sweet spot in terms of distance for high-speed rail and without the topographical challenges that other parts of the world, and certainly folks in California, have to work with.”

The lingering challenges

Millions of private dollars have been invested in failed D-FW to Houston rail plans since the late 1980s, but planners are hopeful federal support could help make it happen this time around. Still, there are several hurdles to clear.

The biggest question for either high-speed rail corridor is where the money will come from to make these projects a reality, Rutter said. The cost estimates from Texas Central have swelled over time, with its most recent estimate at $30 billion in 2020, the Dallas Business Journal reported.

The timeline for Texas Central’s project is also unclear. An Amtrak spokesperson said the company is still exploring a “potential partnership” with Texas Central but has not yet entered into a formal agreement.

Lamers said the council hopes to tap into both public and private funds for development.

Both corridors also face questions regarding their alignment and potential land acquisitions.

Waller County Judge Trey Duhon said a new environmental assessment is needed for Texas Central’s project given new ongoing development in the last three years, including in his own county, south of Dallas and northwest of Houston. Duhon is also the president of Texans Against High-Speed Rail, a group of property owners, business owners and elected officials who have opposed Texas Central’s project and have concerns about its use of eminent domain.

“We still have a lot of folks that feel very passionately about protecting their property — some of which has been in their family for generations,” Duhon said. “So, we’re still here. We’ve come this far; we’re certainly not going to lay down now and we will continue to advocate for those property owners.”

Texas Central’s proposal has been hampered by delays as the company dealt with tax troubles, a leadership exodus, the pandemic and pushback from property owners along the corridor. After the departure of its CEO and its board in 2022, it is now being managed by Michael Bui, the senior managing director of FTI Consulting.

The federal Surface Transportation Board must also approve construction, and it has not yet received an application from Texas Central.

The council says in the Fort Worth to Dallas corridor, about 90% of the route travels through publicly owned land but some of it, particularly in Dallas, goes through private land. That could impact West Dallas residents along with development downtown.

Wheeler said the biggest constraining factors are where the Dallas station is located and how it is aligned. He added the proposal must use the station in the Cedars because it was approved for Texas Central’s Project, and their goal is for travelers to have a “one-seat ride” from Fort Worth to Houston. The team has also looked at about 100 different alignments from “the I-30 and Loop 12 area all the way to downtown” to determine how to mitigate impacts, he said.

“We have to work within those design constraints and how to connect with that station, how to adjust with convention center plans and major existing development in downtown Dallas,” Wheeler said.

It travels near development for the new Kay Bailey Hutchison Convention Center and Reunion Tower. Hunt Realty Investments, which owns Reunion, also has plans for redevelopment around the tower. Colin Fitzgibbons, the president of Hunt Realty, said in a statement the company supports moving the route “below grade,” or below ground level, in Dallas “as has been committed to Fort Worth and Arlington already.”

Dallas City Council member Omar Narvaez, who represents West Dallas, said in a statement that he is confident “we can work out any of the pending concerns.” He’s also part of the NCTCOG’s Regional Transportation Council, which helps guide the development of the plan.

Raúl Reyes Jr., the president of West Dallas 1 — an association of neighborhood groups — said he is concerned about whether planners will use eminent domain to take private property from residents in West Dallas, many of whom may not be able to purchase a new home. He hopes project planners can find a route that doesn’t cross through the area or look for a way to provide opportunities to residents.

“Why don’t you create an opportunity where this train stops in West Dallas?” Reyes said. “Because anytime that you make a train stop, there has to be some form of utility that comes with that … retail, commercial, opportunities for employment, small business.”

“They’re going to have to hire someone to do what — to maintain it, to clean it,” he added. “Those are the kinds of jobs that my community is readily available to immediately apply for.”

©2024 The Dallas Morning News. Visit dallasnews.com. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.