Federal officials rule the rail line won’t stop in Downtown Houston.
America’s train-loving vice president has bestowed his official blessing on the privately funded high-speed rail line between Houston and Dallas. On Wednesday, Joe Biden told a Texas crowd that “you’re going to lead this country into an entirely new era of transportation,” reports Brandon Formby of the Dallas Morning News. He also hinted at promising new funding developments on the horizon:
The only publicly announced investors in the project so far are Texas companies. But Biden on Wednesday said that he recently met in his office with Japanese investors involved in the rail line. The vice president said an announcement related to that matter is forthcoming.
Whether or not Biden’s tease materializes into actual money, the big Texas bullet train has made impressive progress. So far this year the project has survived desperate attempts by local legislators to block the line, countered numerous myths about high-speed rail perpetuated by train haters, and attracted initial (if modest) investments. Another stride came earlier this month as federal officials finished a corridor analysis to determine the train’s precise path, a necessary step toward clearing environmental regulations.
But that last step forward involved a troubling step back. In its corridor analysis, the Federal Railroad Administration eliminated two alternatives that would have placed a terminal directly in Downtown Houston. Citing the potential for “significant environmental impacts thereby resulting in higher per mile costs,” FRA said a downtown station would be too expensive to keep the project’s “economic viability” afloat. Instead, the train heading into Houston will halt at the intersection of US 290 and Interstate 610, outside the city.
That’s worrisome news for several reasons. For one thing, it means HSR riders will have to connect to another mode of transportation to reach downtown Houston. At the moment, though, no such connection exists. Creating one means Texas Central must work with Houston Metro to extend the local light rail system out toward the HSR stop, or perhaps create a rapid bus corridor. In either case it’s looking like Dallas-Houston travelers will have to transfer to get from one downtown to the other—spoiling a chief perk of intercity trains.
More broadly, conventional wisdom holds that HSR stations function better for city residents when they’re located downtown. That point was emphasized in a recent report by Eric Eidlin of the U.S. Federal Transit Administration on best practices from around the world. Downtown stations not only serve as investment anchors but also urban mobility hubs, facilitating access by taxi, bike, or public transportation. Stations on the outskirts, meanwhile, tend to have more parking and thus to encourage more driving.
Texas Central doesn’t seem fazed by the ruling. A company spokesperson didn’t respond to multiple requests for comment on the station location, but Formby reports in a previous blog post that project backers remain confident a terminal situated outside the city “will still attract plenty of passengers”:
“Our ridership studies indicate we will have substantial market share at that location,” said Tim Keith, CEO of developer Texas Central Partners.
It’s not that downtown Houston wasn’t a goal. But early analysis deemed potential routes into the central business district would create such costly environmental impacts that the entire project wouldn’t be financially viable.
“We like either location from a station perspective,” Keith said of a downtown or northwest end point.
It’s too early to tell whether that positive outlook reflects a genuine sentiment or an attempt to make lemonade. The U.S. may be poised to enter a new era of transportation with its emerging high-speed rail network, and Texas Central is still leading the way. But it’s going to need more than Biden one-liners to get there.