The Dallas-to-Houston bullet train rolled a few inches closer to the starting line Friday with the release of a long-awaited federal study that narrows down several possible routes to a single path through powerline easements.
The Draft Environmental Impact Statement, released by the U.S. Department of Transportation, doesn't necessarily endorse the so-called Utility Corridor.
The feds still have 60 days to hear from the public before a final decision is made at a date undetermined. Ten public hearings will be scheduled in the next two months in the 10 counties affected by the 240-mile, $15 billion project privately funded by Texas Central Partners.
According to a briefing given to a Dallas City Council committee last month, Texas Central hopes to begin construction in late 2018 or early 2019, with service beginning in 2023. When finished, the train's expected to move travelers between Houston and Dallas in 90 minutes at speeds around 200 mph.
But the massive report released Friday is still a sketch. After the public comment period, a more detailed environmental study will follow, along with a final record of decision that fills in the big picture. And local and federal authorities expect significant push-back, especially in Houston, over land acquisition, environmental concerns and the fact that Houston's station would be far north of the city.
On Friday, Texas Central said it has acquired just 30 percent of the parcels along the proposed route. It also hasn't begun raising the $15 billion the project is estimated to cost. Officials said they aren't taking the rail line to market until the feds have completely signed off, which doesn't happen until the release of the record of decision — for which no timeline has been given.
But officials in the Trump administration are counting on the public-private partnership to jump-start the president's stalled billion-dollar infrastructure plan. In a statement Friday, U.S. Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao endorsed the Dallas-to-Houston high-speed rail line, as well as a separate private passenger rail service in Florida, insisting it would increase travel options and promote economic growth in the region.
"Thousands of hours have been spent to ensure the Texas Bullet Train will be constructed and operated in a way that gives Texans a choice for the safest mode of transportation in the world," Texas Central CEO Carlos Aguilar said in a prepared statement. "This process ensures issues identified are addressed in the best way possible for communities and the environment."
The Utility Corridor option is far from a done deal. The draft says that portions of the Interstate 45 corridor "should be retained for further investigation in the event that constraints arise along the Utility Corridor." But for now, at least, the easement used in part by Oncor is the route of least resistance and has the smallest impact on surrounding areas and nearby neighbors, including wildlife and vegetation.
More than half of the 240-mile rail line would be constructed on elevated viaducts.
The draft report teases Dallas Area Rapid Transit with some possible good news — "increased ridership" that "would be a beneficial impact." But there's also a downside to the Utility Corridor route.
"Since the existing utility corridors do not extend into Dallas and Houston," the draft says, "railroad right-of-way would be needed to complete the corridor connectivity."
Given the preferred alignment, at least for the moment, the draft report says the stations would be near downtown Dallas, in an area bound by the Trinity River and interstates 30 and 35E and South Lamar Street, and along Interstate 610 and U.S. Highway 290 north of Houston. The Federal Railroad Administration also studied a third station being proposed by Texas Central, in unincorporated Grimes County near Roans Prairie.
The study says planting the Dallas station along I-30 is ideal because it "provides access to the former Reunion Area site, Dallas Union Station and the Dallas Convention Center" and "contains a mix of light industrial and commercial land uses, as well as the Trinity River floodplain."