Texas Central's Houston-to-Dallas Bullet Train Line Is a Texas Regulatory Problem, Federal Regulator Says

Despite the best efforts of Texas Central Partners to get federal regulators involved in the project, the proposed Houston-to-Dallas bullet train line will be almost entirely a Texas issue. And that may work out just fine for Texas Central, the company we wrote about in last August's cover story, "On the Line," since apparently Texas Central has also been cultivating connections with state regulators as well.

If things go according to plan, Texas Central officials say, actual construction will start by 2017, and by 2021, they will have invested more than $10 billion to construct a Houston-to-Dallas bullet train line (like Japan Central's N700 Shinkansen) that will be toting passengers between the two cities at speeds of up to 200 mph within 90 minutes. But for all this to happen — and for the rural critics of the project to get screwed over as many of them maintain they will if this rail line is ever built — Texas Central has to figure out what entity will be regulating the company and to hedge its bets accordingly. 

Initially Texas Central applied for "clarification" of its status to the federal Surface Transportation Board.
"We were seeking clarification and guidance from the STB of its jurisdiction. Without a response, there would have been regulatory uncertainty that would create risk to the timelines," Holly Reed, managing director for external affairs at Texas Central, stated via email.

Earlier this week, the STB replied with an answer to the company's clarification request. On Monday the board made it clear that "it does not have jurisdiction over the Texas high-speed rail project being privately developed by Texas Central connecting North Texas and Houston, and therefore no STB approval of the project is necessary prior to commencing construction," according to a release issued by Texas Central Tuesday.

The company release states that Texas Central had originally sought "clarification" about the STB's role in the project considering the precedent set by other rail projects (e.g., in other rail project situations the STB has been involved at this point.) Minus such clarification, "regulatory uncertainty" could have been a problem for the Houston-to-Dallas high-speed rail line's timeline to get the rail built by 2021. 

However, at the end of the day, it was a very simple question as far as the regulators at STB were concerned. Since the proposed 240-mile high-speed route will be built and operated entirely in Texas, between Houston and Dallas, the STB has no authority over the line.  If this project were subject to the STB’s jurisdiction, then Texas Central would be required by federal law to obtain the agency’s approval to construct and operate the rail line," Reed explained. "We now know that federal approval is not needed to construct the line. With this clarity, we can continue forward and develop the project without any STB approval."

So with one brief decision from the STB, the federal government has made clear that Texas Central and the high-speed rail line the company plans to build are almost entirely a Texas regulatory problem. And this changes nothing, Reed stated.  "This ruling simply removes the need to seek STB approval to construct and operate the rail line. We remain focused on reaching the major milestones of the project."

Texas Central is still being regulated by the Federal Railroad Administration in regard to safety and operating rules for the project, but that's where federal involvement starts and ends on this thing. 

Opponents of the project celebrated STB's polite decision not to be involved as a victory in their fight to oppose the rail line. The group, Texans Against High-Speed Rail, issued a release on Tuesday crowing over their victory that has forced the company to "come back to Texas to get approval to build its high-speed rail." In its decision, the opposition group noted in its release, the STB pointed out that Texas Central's plans are "too speculative and undefined to make this intrastate line part of the interstate rail network based on the information in the petition." 

However, Texas Central has at least one ace in its pocket. The company announced another two hires on Monday. Michael Moore, a top aide to former Houston Mayor Bill White, joined the company as regional vice president, and former Texas Transportation Commissioner Jeff Moseley has signed on as vice president for state operations of the company.

Moseley just so happens to have, well, resigned his spot on the five-member Texas Transportation Committee specifically to take this new gig with Texas Central, but don't think this means the company has the ear of the commission or that Moseley's knowledge of the commission and relationships with its members will be doing Texas Central any favors.

After all, Texas Central officials have already reassured everyone that Moseley will not be "interfacing" with the state transportation agency in his role at Texas Central. We don't know what else he'll be doing with them, but no interfacing. So that's a relief to know, right?
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Dianna Wray is a nationally award-winning journalist. Born and raised in Houston, she writes about everything from NASA to oil to horse races.
Contact: Dianna Wray