Here's what is ahead for the proposed Houston-to-Dallas high-speed rail, including potentially traumatized butterflies

The Texas Bullet Train still only exists on paper.


Yes, it can be built. The technology exists. But the money isn't there yet to build it. Texas Central Partners, which wants to build the train, doesn't yet have all the land rights it needs. Environmental concerns abound. And development and design decisions still need to be made.


But the plans keep chugging along. And all the possibilities of a 90-minute Dallas-to-Houston high-speed rail connection, with a stop near Texas A&M University, have sparked a frenzy of planning in Houston and Dallas — and waves of anxiety in rural counties in between.


Here are the latest things to know about the high-speed rail battle.


It's sold as a unifier despite the urban-rural divide

The train has been pitched as a potential infrastructure jewel — and job generator — that could strengthen the economic bond between the state's two largest metro areas. 


Texas Central Partners insists the line isn't a far-flung fantasy. Officials hope that it could open as soon as 2024.

"We're going to be the first high-speed rail in, never mind the United States, but North America," said David Robinson, chair of Houston's Transportation, Technology and Infrastructure council committee. "This is a unifier, something that can bring our two metropolitan areas closer together in commerce, trade and interchange of ideas. No better two cities to do this than Dallas and Houston."


A single stop is planned between the two cities and will serve Texas A&M University and rural Grimes County. The train would provide a quick connection between the university's dental school in Dallas and Health Science Center's Houston campus.


While bringing high-speed rail technology to the U.S. was a goal of the Obama administration, the Trump administration and some conservatives have been assuaged by Texas Central's pledge to avoid taxpayer funding.

"We fit extremely well with what the administration and Congress are looking at to get things done," said Holly Reed, Texas Central managing director of external affairs. "We're not waiting for a grant to start. We're starting. That's why these iconic Texas entrepreneurs are putting money into it."


Well, about that money

Texas Central does have some big backers with big wallets.

In 2015, Texas Central announced John Kleinheinz of Fort Worth, Omni Dallas Hotel and Cedars developer Jack Matthews, and former Houston Astros owner Drayton McLane Jr. among investors and board members. 

But Texas Central still has a big financial challenge ahead of it. The project will cost $12-$15 billion by its estimate. Others say it could cost $20 billion. 


Erosion concerns are rising

Many property owners haven't been soothed as they've seen more details of the company's plans. Some have gone to court and Texas Commission on Environmental Quality meetings to stop the train.

Dozens of them gathered Thursday night in Waxahachie for the second of three TCEQ public meetings on the train issue. And they weren't thrilled about berms that would run down the middle of their property, the possible disruption to livestock and the potential impact to their water supply.

"If they're proposing a berm, it's got to run off somewhere," Ferris landowner David Risinger told TCEQ officials. "It's going to severely erode our land, our pasture."


TCEQ officials promised they'd visit homeowners' sites personally to learn more. Typically, TCEQ takes a year or longer to issue a permit, add conditions or to deny a permit for a large project — but the agency hasn't ever seen a project quite like the bullet train.


Texas Central said it has reached land-use agreements with about a third of those whose properties will be impacted — nearly half in areas where the exact route has been known for a longer time.

"The reaction we're seeing from the community is a reflection of how excited people are to get the project done," Reed said. "They want to ride the train and that gives us energy."


The lawyers have been called in


But other landowners are taking the fight to courts. Leon County landowner Jim Miles is awaiting a judge's ruling on his challenge that Texas Central Partners is not a railroad by Texas law and therefore cannot take land by eminent domain.


The company said in a statement Friday that it "looks forward to a decision affirming its rights under state law to conduct surveys on private property to help determine the train's most advantageous route.


"Texas law long has given survey access and use of eminent domain to railroads, pipelines, electrical lines and other industries that provide for a public good and a strong economy," the company said.


Proposals are sprouting up


Working with Robinson, the Houston City Council member, Dallas' Corgan architects dedicated its an annual design contest to exploring the possibilities for Houston's terminal and surrounding area. The results of the company's in-house contest will be presented to the Houston City Council this month.


Corgan has no official connection to Texas Central, but the company isn't disassociating itself either.


"The fact that an architectural firm of its own volition wants to get involved says something of itself," Reed said. "We love it when those type of organic movements supporting the train are happening."

One of the bigger challenges is overcoming the geography, if not the stigma, of the Houston terminal, a former mall site seven miles northwest of downtown. 


Robinson, a former Dallas architect, said he was happy the nine teams at Corgan incorporated the diversity of nearby neighborhoods and what he called a "green surge" in Houston. The winning design featured an elevated rail connection, residential and entertainment districts and parks and water retention features.


"The Houston site was a clean slate in a sense," said James Adams, Corgan senior associate.  "The idea was not just to look at the station, but to look at the properties around there."


But for the rural property owners, the possibilities aren't quite as enticing.

Reese Brown of Navarro County said he assumes there will be trestles for his livestock to cross to get to their drinking source. But he said Texas Central hasn't made plans available to him. 


Texas Central Partners says it has made plans available online and locally for anyone to see.

In an attempt to lessen the impact on landowners, more than half the track will run along power lines. Brown said those power lines are also where he's made a habitat for monarch butterflies, a project funded through a state grant.


"I think my butterflies are going to be traumatized," he said.


Story By: 

Ray Leszcynski, Communities

Top Picture Image: https://www.flickr.com/photos/digitaljourney/5424241457