(TNS) — A planned high-speed rail line remains a popular project with city officials, many of whom are holding onto hope for an eventual downtown terminal.
“We are looking at the best interests of the city,” said District K Councilman Larry Green, noting the city is seeking an engineering firm to study a downtown rail link.
Texas Central Partners, the private firm proposing the Houston-to-Dallas line, briefed a city council committee Monday, telling officials they remain on track to break ground in late 2017.
“That might slide into early 2018,” said Shaun McCabe, vice-president of Texas Central Railway.
Any connection to downtown, which would likely require public funding, would be built later, said Holly Reed, manager of external affairs for Texas Central Partners.
The railway company will operate trains carrying up to 400 passengers every 30 minutes during peak times between the two metro regions. The trip will take about 90 minutes, officials said.
Texas Central Partners is developing the project, though the two are largely the same entity. Company officials said the entire project – estimated to cost around $12 billion – will be privately funded. Texas-based investors and engineering companies have contributed an initial round of investment, while the Japan Bank of International Cooperation will contribute significantly.
The bank helps fund projects that export Japanese technology, such as the Texas Central will do by importing Shinkansen high-speed train technology to Texas.
Questions remain about the line, particularly in rural areas where opposition is strong. Ranchers and county officials in many places between Houston and Dallas have called the line disastrous for their quiet way of life.
In Houston, concerns focus more on the effect in specific neighborhoods and worries over noise and visual blight. The issue that has drawn the most attention is the plan by Texas Central to stop the line near U.S. 290 and Loop 610.
“I am concerned there is a possibility of land-locking my district,” District A Councilwoman Brenda Stardig said, noting details have made it hard to determine the traffic effects the line will have.
The train line would run parallel to U.S. 290, Hempstead Highway and a freight rail line, which Stardig said could be too much for the area to overcome in terms of crossings and large impediments cutting the neighborhoods in half.
The lack of a downtown connection, meanwhile, continues to worry some officials, including Green and Mayor Sylvester Turner. Houston Public Works has a pending request for proposals for an engineering firm to study the downtown link in greater detail. Green said the study would give Houston more information about the importance of a downtown link, which would then be turned over to the company so they can consider a possible link.
“It might make sense for them to do it,” Green said. “We as a city want to know what the impact would be and is there another way.”
Reed, the Texas Central spokeswoman, said the company would consider any alternative outside its own plans as “complimentary” to its own plans. She compared the Houston discussion to a similar conversation happening in the Dallas area, where a link to Fort Worth is being studied.
That extension, however, is predicated on public funding, Reed said.
The next step in developing the line is a draft environmental report, expected in late summer or early fall. The report will be followed by a round of public meetings, in coordination with the company and the Federal Railroad Administration. Federal officials have to eventually approve the route and technology used and clear the company to proceed.
The deadline for the city’s request for a qualified firm to study options for extending the high-speed rail or adding other transit services is May 27.
©2016 the Houston Chronicle, Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.