The Texas-based company that wants to construct a high-speed railway between Houston and Dallas is on the verge of clearing a significant hurdle after the Federal Railroad Administration (FRA) released its final environmental impact assessment for the project last Friday, May 29.
Two months earlier, the FRA published a notice of proposed minimal safety standards for Texas Central, the Dallas company that plans to import Japanese technology and has been waiting for the FRA to finalize both sets of guidelines for the domestic railway.
FRA spokesperson Warren Flatau said earlier this week that the agency continues to evaluate public comments regarding the environmental impact and proposed rules for Texas Central’s project and expects to issue a final decision this summer. That next step figures to be a formality, according to Texas Central CEO Carlos Aguilar, who said the company has invested more than $65 million toward receiving the go-ahead from the FRA, which published its initial environmental impact statement in December 2017.
“It is absolutely huge,” Aguilar said of last week’s development. “It’s done. It’s good.”
There are lots of moving parts in the plan to move Texans between the state’s two largest cities, by train, at a rate of approximately 200 mph. Along with securing approval from the federal government, which would be charged with regulating the operation and ensuring it is safe, Texas Central needs enough money to construct a 240-mile, high-speed railway between Houston and Dallas and also needs to acquire all of the land along the proposed route.
Proponents of the project got good news on the latter front earlier this month, when a Texas appellate court ruled that Texas Central is a railroad company and has the authority to exercise eminent domain to secure the land it needs to construct the railway. That overturned a previous ruling by a judge in rural Leon County who said the company was not a railroad company, because it had yet to operate as one, and could not utilize eminent domain.
Texans Against High-Speed Rail, which represents land owners along the planned route, announced May 8 that it intended to take the case to the Texas Supreme Court. Aguilar said Texas Central hopes to avoid using eminent domain, instead working out deals with the individual property owners, but at this point he said the company has about 40 percent of the needed land under contract.
Among the property Texas Central has secured, Aguilar said, are the planned stations in Houston and Dallas as a well as a midpoint station in Grimes County. The former Northwest Mall site at the intersection of U.S. 290 and Loop 610 is earmarked for the Houston station.
An even bigger hurdle for the project, estimated to cost in excess of $15 billion, could be Texas Central’s ability to secure adequate funding. The company is privately funded and in March laid off 28 employees – roughly half of its staff – because of the economic downtown associated with the COVID-19 pandemic.
“The condition of the financial markets is one that we can’t predict, but we’re working through it,” Aguilar said. “I think it’s a difficult time for everyone.”
Aguilar said Texas Central, which has international project partners based in countries such as Italy and Spain, could benefit from low oil prices and low interest rates as it seeks out investors and other funding sources. He said the company may try to utilize public funding, although it has not to this point.
Despite some remaining roadblocks, Texas Central’s vision has continued to gain ground. Flatau called the issuance of the Final Environmental Impact Statement a “milestone,” partly because it came after the FRA considered more than 25,000 public comments about the project. Earlier this month, Flatau said the FRA also held three telephonic public hearings regarding the proposed rules for the railway and received 13 hours’ worth of comments.
Whether people are for or against the project, which aims to take passengers between Houston and Dallas in a matter of about 90 minutes, Aguilar said it remains on course for construction to start later this year and for the train to be operational by 2026.
“That’s still the goal,” he said.