Trying to follow the saga of the proposed Houston-to-Dallas High Speed Rail can seem like a crash course in futility – but that has not sapped concerned citizens of their desire to question the planned project as it currently stands.
Monday, March 5, hundreds of landowners, homeowners and concerned residents gathered inside the Sheraton Brookhollow Hotel as the Federal Railroad Administration (FRA) and Texas Central held one last meeting for public feedback on their Draft Environmental Impact Statement (DEIS) for the proposed high-speed rail line connecting10 Texas counties.
With issues ranging from an alleged lack of ethics from Texas Central representatives when claiming eminent domain down to how the project would merge with local transit options or perceived inconsistencies within the DEIS, the group had plenty to say. Other questions raised included what will happen to the NW Mall site as well as potential funding for construction.
Mobility, parking concerns locals
For several, concerns stem from a belief TCR may not have fully vetted the potential congestion around the Houston terminus thoroughly. Evan Michaelides with the Houston High Speed Rail Watch – which includes representatives from the First Ward, Garden Oaks, Independence Heights, Oak Forest, Inwood Forest, Old Sixth Ward and other areas around the terminus – said such a concern is paramount within the group, though they have taken no public stance on the project. Despite being touted as a partial solution to the city’s congestion, Michaelides said the group still has some questions about it.
“It’s critical for Houston that this project be integrated with local mass transit, because if the local mobility solution for high speed rail riders is going to be a five-story parking garage with rental car facilities, that’s just going to increase Houston’s existing traffic problems,” he said. “If 400 riders get off a train and get into cars, all we have done is move the problem from I-45 to the local streets of Houston. What has TCR done to ensure high-speed rail riders they will not bring more congestion to our local streets and freeways?”
Others brought concerns regarding the parking situation, a perceived failure to define “peak hours,” and other inconsistencies which could have a significant impact on local roadways as well as the viability of the currently-proposed parking garage at the Houston terminus, despite TCR’s insistence of ample parking for visitors with no needed street overflow.
“[Such a definition of peak hours] factors into the volume of traffic, anticipated levels of congestion, and parking requirements. Since this project is the first of its kind in the United States, it should have a first-of-its-kind plan to make sure the project benefits the areas it serves,” Super Neighborhood 5 (Greater Inwood) President Philip Salerno said. “When you factor in the number of departures from the Houston terminus, time between departures (every 30 minutes), expected capacity and so many more dynamics, you’re using up those spaces very quickly.”
NW Mall site in limbo?
It’s no secret that the Northwest Mall site has become more ghost town than coveted shopping spot in recent years, and officials insist the station will “revitalize” the under-utilized space – but what will happen in the meantime? Currently, Texas Central projects a project timeline of roughly 4-5 years should the project gain approval – would NW Mall sit there stewing in its own juices?
TCR Managing Director of External Affairs Holly Reed told The Leader that getting permits in place for construction – which officials hope occurs before the end of this year – remains a key step. Once that happens, she insisted there would be no time spent waiting in limbo, with 10,000 workers spending time on the project each year it remains under construction.
“The federal permits set the pace for the entire project, so once those permits get approved, then construction can start,” she said. “Our building of the 240 miles will commence on all segments – including the stations – at the same time. It’s an ambitious project that will have an economic impact across the state.”
Construction funding still to come
According to Reed, Texas Central would like to begin construction in 2019, provided permits gain approval before Christmas as expected. But a glance at Texas Central’s website last month turned up no source of funding for potential construction costs — only that for planning and pre-construction.
However, Reed said TCR simply has not requested the backing for construction yet, given that approval remains pending. Current estimates for construction of track between Dallas and Houston is approximately $16 billion according to TxDOT.
“The timelines for this type of project are different from those that are federally-funded. The project fundraising has met every goal that’s been set so far,” she said. “Currently the project is funded to get through feasibility and development. When the permits are in place, then we’ll close on the money for construction.”
Though Monday was the final public meeting, residents still have a chance for their voice to be heard. If you would like to provide comments on the Environmental Impact Statement process, send an email to DallasHoustonHSR@urs.com or visit the FRA’s comment section on their website by March 9.