Had this been a typical year, construction would likely be about to start on Texas Central, the 240-mile high-speed rail project between Houston and Dallas. Unfortunately, every economy and industry around the globe has been impacted by COVID-19. But even with these obstacles, the regulatory portion of this project remains on schedule.
“No industry, company or individuals are unaffected by this pandemic,” Travis Kelly, vice president of stakeholder engagement for Texas Central, said. “It’s global, and it’s very local. Our leadership made the difficult decision in the latter part of March to make sure the development capital we had on hand would allow us to complete our regulatory reviews. That meant a reduction in force. That has allowed us to stay on schedule on the regulatory front.”
According to the Texas Central website, once completed, this project is expected to deliver $36 billion in economic impact over its first 25 years. The high-speed train, the first in the United States, is also expected to create 10,000 direct jobs during construction and at least 1,500 permanent jobs once it is in operation.
Trips between Dallas and Houston are expected to take 90 minutes with riders enjoying such amenities as free WiFi and enough leg and elbow room to deliver “a first-class experience in every seat.” By 2029, annual ridership is expected to pass six million, and 13 million by 2050.
Even with the global economy slowed by the pandemic, Texas Central has still hit several key regulatory benchmarks since late March. On May 29, the final environmental impact statement, totaling 10,000 pages was published. The process started in 2014 with the 5,000-page initial environmental impact statement.
“[The process] has included dozens of public meetings and town halls,” Kelly said. “There are a lot of big milestones in that process. [The final statement] has the benefit of being informed by tens of thousands of public and agency comments, additional public hearings and effort from us and the many local, state, federal agencies and commissions that contribute to that document. That’s a document that is a really significant milestone.”
Another major regulatory effort currently underway is developing safety rules for the high-speed rail system. Since this will be the first train of its type in the States, no existing framework for these rules, which are being developed by the Federal Railroad Administration (FRA), is in place.
“The FRA issued their notice of proposed rulemaking [NPRM] in March,” Kelly said. “That had a public hearing which included three telephone town halls where the public and agencies weighed in. They also received written comments from people from across the country watching this project closely.
“The end of that process will be a set of rules the FRA will use to regulate this project on an ongoing basis beginning in its testing and commission of trains all the way through the operation and maintenance once passenger service starts. That was a big step.”
Texas Central is also working toward securing two important permits from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. A Section 404 permit under the Clean Water Act regulates the discharge of dredging or fill material into U.S. waterways during construction projects.
A Section 408 permit ensures any alterations to a project are not against the public interest and will not adversely impact the project’s usefulness.
“Both of those processes remain on schedule as well,” Kelly said. “The objective of the project to be perfectly positioned as the global economy begins to emerge from the pandemic and look for opportunities to get people back to work. All of that is moving as we had planned.”
Construction is expected to take between six and six and a half years, and the train can travel at speeds exceeding 200 MPH. This will be the next generation “bullet” train, a system employed in Japan for the past 155 years, and one which could be operational in Texas by 2026 or 2027.
Kelly, Texas Central’s first hire who has been with the project for over nine years, likes being part of such an innovative project, the first of its kind in America.
“For a lot of folks, thinking of something six years off or seven years, it seems like forever away,” Kelly said. “The thought of having high-speed rail in Texas of all places in the United States first seems far-fetched, but in fact the numbers really do back that up and really do tell an excellent story of how perfect the Texas market is for this type of technology. So, a big challenge for us is telling that story and making that case and keeping folks excited and engaged over the long period of time it takes to make this megaproject a reality.”
Written by Stephen Hunt