What Did the Feds Actually Approve on the Dallas-to-Houston Bullet Train Line This Month? (Spoiler: Nothing, Really)
Photo of the N700 bullet train, courtesy of JR Central
When we saw a story in the Dallas Business Journal vaguely announcing an “exclusive” story on the proposed Houston-to-Dallas high-speed rail line, we clicked on the story interested to read about this brand spanking new and oh-so-exclusive development. (We wrote about the project in our August 20 cover story, "On the Line.") And then we started reading, and everything got even less clear.
Back in February, Texas Central officials announced that a utility corridor was the company's preferred path for the Houston-to-Dallas line. They submitted their study to the Federal Railroad Administration, and then had to wait to see whether the federal agency decided to agree with them on this.
Earlier this week it seems that Texas Central CEO Tim Keith, appointed to his post in July, announced at a meeting of North Texas businessmen that the FRA had approved the utility route as the bullet train corridor. A DBJ reporter was apparently in the audience and he wrote the aforementioned “exclusive” story, published on Tuesday, announcing that the FRA “has decided on a route that follows major electrical transmission lines through mostly rural areas.”
We were puzzled because we couldn't find any recent (meaning: information issued in the past two or three days) releases or studies from the FRA that even mentioned the Dallas-to-Houston line. So we emailed Texas Central and asked a Texas Central spokeswoman to help us understand what exactly the FRA had recently done.
The spokesperson gave us this statement from Keith:
“The Federal Railroad Administration (FRA) has confirmed the Utility Corridor will provide the best possible route for high-speed rail between Dallas and Houston based on public input, engineering and environmental analysis. This corridor will best position the project to minimize impacts on communities while maximizing the benefits of the project to its customers and the state of Texas. The environmental review will now focus on analyzing the numerous alignments within the corridor.”
We got a follow up call from a Texas Central spokesman (who wouldn't even give us his freaking name on the record) who gave us something that more closely resembled an actual answer. In February, he said, Texas Central actually submitted a letter to the FRA asking if the company could focus on the utility route as its main corridor. “Last week,” the spokesman said, “the FRA said yes you can. Until Texas Central had received something saying that they were still evaluating two routes. Now, they can focus on one and they can go out and meet with landowners and get out in the field and start talking to communities and stakeholders about where the line will actually go.”
We'd also asked FRA itself to see if anyone at the agency could make sense of where exactly Texas Central was in this process. An FRA staffer got back to us shortly after we spoke with Texas Central.
The FRA staffer sent us the study that all of these not-quite-correct bits of information seem to have come from. The report, jauntily titled the “Dallas to Houston High Speed Rail Project Corridor Alternatives Analysis Technical Report," was quietly posted to the agency's website August 12.
Basically, what happened is that Texas Central agreed to fund the environmental impact study, but the FRA is the one actually conducting said study. The FRA had simply reviewed the four proposed corridors for the bullet train. Texas Central had concluded that three of the four corridors were not viable options for various reasons, but the fourth corridor, which will run along or nearby high-tension utility lines, met the company's criteria.
So yeah, two weeks ago the FRA posted a report stating that it had checked Texas Central's information and reported that it was accurate and that Texas Central's preferred line was the one option of four submitted that fit various criteria. But that doesn't exactly mean the FRA approved anything. Now the FRA will simply continue with its environmental impact study of Texas Central's proposed route. Agency reviewers are set to look at alignments, meaning they'll consider the specific route instead of a broad swath of land — such as scouting specific locations and property near nearby the proposed line, along with tackling right-of-way issues. When you get to the alignments stage you have to know exactly where things will be in a fairly precise way, according to the FRA staffer. Texas Central is responsible for doing the proposals and approaching landowners and the FRA is responsible for reviewing these options and figuring out the best options and alternatives.
Once the alignment study is done, the FRA will finish up its environmental impact study – there's months of work to do so it won't be completed until next year at the earliest. Then there will be meetings and feedback and the FRA will issue it's findings.
So, to sum it all up: The FRA didn't so much approve the utility route as a corridor as it agreed that based on Texas Central's work, and information reviewed by the FRA, that they would take Texas Central's word that the utility corridor was the most viable option. Also, this happened two weeks ago. Also, Texas Central reps don't seem to know when it actually happened.