In its heyday, the Northwest Mall was the place to go before waning crowds have painted it nearly a ghost town in recent years; but the site could soon become a hub once again following a major development.
As part of an ongoing shift in the Texas and Houston transportation system, Texas Central and Mayor Sylvester Turner announced Monday morning that the Northwest Mall site has been chosen as the preferred location for the southern Texas (Houston) bullet train station. The mall – which closed its doors in March 2017 save for a few stores and venues with exterior doors – would be bulldozed to make room for a state-of-the-art rail station, for which Texas Central reached an agreement with owners of the mall property to be repurposed as the city’s Bullet Train and transit hub.
“This is a huge step forward; all stations will reflect the communities they serve, and be uniquely Texan,” Texas Central CEO Carlos Aguilar said.
Including the Houston site, the bullet train stations and their construction are all privately funded, so no taxpayer dollars will be committed to the endeavor. Cruising at speeds in excess of 200 miles per hour, the bullet train will move passengers between Houston and Dallas in 90 minutes, with additional stops in Brazos Valley, between College Station and Hempstead.
Rejuvenating Northwest Mall
Jack Matthews, president of Matthews Southwest, will be developing the station project.
“We look forward to helping create a new community that will also bring a transportation asset to all Houstonians,” he said. “We are excited to work in an area with so much potential for vibrancy, including transit-oriented development.”
Texas Central officials mentioned the mall site presenting itself as the most viable option of three propositions largely due to minimal environmental and community effects, adding it allows the train to mostly follow existing rights of way while providing connectivity to METRO’s Northwest Transit Center. Further, officials said the station will create a robust market for new shops, restaurants, entertainment, hotels, condos and other development while revitalizing the mall’s under-used property and boosting economic growth.
“Those of us who have been in this city for a long time know [that Northwest Mall property] has been pretty dormant for a long time, and everyone’s been trying to figure out what the next step is,” Turner said.
Houston’s Bullet Train terminal will sit in the high-growth area near the Interstate 290 and 610 Loop interchanges, with access to employment centers such as the Galleria, the Energy Corridor, Downtown and the Medical Center. Officials believe the location will not only be a catalyst for economic growth, but also offer convenient, efficient networks for passengers to and from local transit systems. Initial renderings released Monday depict a multi-level station on the 45-acre site, which officials say will connect with existing local transportation while providing connectivity to the high-volume employment areas.
“This is a huge step, not just for the Northwest Mall location, but the entire northwest quadrant and the city of Houston. [That whole area] will be revitalized just by the presence of this station,” Turner said. “…We are moving to a new phase in this city, and this station is a game-changer. We cannot limit the scope or its magnitude.”
Turner believes the Texas Bullet Train station to be an embodiment of the attempted transportation system paradigm shift he sought upon taking office little more than one year ago, citing Houston’s history as a major railway hub.
“Houston continues to grow. Growing the smart way includes providing a wider choice of transportation options beyond more private vehicles and more roads. And now with a preferred location for the Houston station, we are one big step closer to boarding for an exciting trip to the Brazos Valley and on to Dallas,” he said. “…We must do more than just build more roads for more privately-owned vehicles, and this project is a big part of that shift.”
Monday’s selection was revealed roughly a month following federal regulators’ release of an environmental analysis that said the Houston-to-North Texas train would alleviate the strain on the state’s existing infrastructure and is needed to accommodate growing demands. The bullet train is expected to remove more than 14,000 cars from Interstate 45 – which has become a daily nightmare for Houston motorists – on a daily basis once completed.
“This will bring a safe, productive transportation alternative to these communities – one that doesn’t deal with traffic snarls,” Turner said.
Additionally, officials say the Bullet Train will create 10,000 new jobs per year during construction – which Turner hopes will begin early in 2019 – and up to 1,500 permanent jobs upon completion.
“This is a new model for infrastructure improvements – it’s transformational. Everyone along the route will benefit,” Texas Central Board Chairman Drayton McLane said. “The entire state, and especially all the counties and communities along the route, will see gains. That includes getting more in tax revenue from the train and from ticket sales and more local jobs and business for those helping to build the project.”
Far from a sure thing
The Federal Railroad Administration (FRA) completed an independent evaluation of potential HSR corridor alternatives and determined that the chosen utility corridor is the only feasible end-to-end corridor alternative. Despite that, opponents – many of whom live directly within the Utility Corridor through which the HSR will run – slammed the project at public meetings Feb. 5 and 6, insisting the project will destroy land that has been owned for generations as it makes its way through 10 different counties, among having other adverse effects.
The FRA is accepting public comments on the environmental report and will evaluate the preferred station site in advance of issuing a final assessment, which officials believe will come by the end of 2018.
If residents did not get a chance to speak at one of the public meetings, they have until March 9 to submit comments by sending an email to DallasHoustonHSR@urs.com or visiting the comment page on the FRA’s website at fra.dot.gov. Comments received outside of the public comment period will be considered in the EIS document as feasible, and all comments received will be included in the administrative record.
Officials have held celebratory-type openings in both Dallas and Houston in recent weeks, and the HSR could be on its way to full fruition. But given the volume of public pushback thus far, it could also be far from a sure thing.