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March 27, 2014

Fort Worth-Arlington firepower on Texas high-speed rail commission

@gdickson

Tarrant County's influence in the effort to build 220 mph bullet trains continues to grow with the appointment Thursday of six members of a high-speed rail commission. With the appointments, the North Texas High-Speed Rail Commission now is made up of seven members - five from Fort Worth or Arlington.

The group is overseeing the state's role in a proposed high-speed rail line that would connect Houston, Dallas, Arlington and Fort Worth - with the Houston-Dallas connection possibly opening in 2021.

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Former Fort Worth Councilman Bill Meadows was appointed chairman of the high-speed rail commission in January. On Thursday, six other commission members were named.

They include: Tarrant County Judge Glen Whitley; Fort Worth lawyer Dee Kelly Jr.; Fort Worth resident and interim NAACP chief executive Lorraine Miller; Arlington civil engineer Jeff Williams; Dallas Councilwoman Vonceil Jones Hill; and Dallas energy executive Jere Thompson.

Other members could be appointed later, state officials said.

The group will operate in an advisory role, helping the statewide Texas Transportation Commission understand how these corridors, which could be mostly privately funded, are developing and how state laws affect the project. The group would also determine how any state funding might be used in a high-speed rail project, although transportation commissioners are careful to point out that to date no public funding commitments have been made.

"We're going to produce some good work," Meadows told state transportation commissioners Thursday during a meeting in Austin.

After the meeting, Meadows said he and many other Metroplex transportation officials were consulted by state officials about the appointees, but the decision about who to put on the high-speed rail commission was left entirely to the Texas Transportation Commission.

A company known as Texas Central Railway, in a partnership with Central Japan Railway, has proposed building the Houston-to-Dallas connection and opening it to the public by 2021. The group says it can build that line for roughly $10 billion in privately-raised funding - without public subsidies.

A federal environmental impact study on that proposal is set to formally kick off this spring.

Meanwhile, in North Texas, regional planners have insisted that if bullet trains are to serve the area there should be at least three stops - not only in Dallas, but at least one each in Arlington and Fort Worth. A separate environmental study is planned on that segment - in which a high-speed rail line could be built along Interstate 30 - later this year, too.

The Texas Transportation Commission on Thursday approved the high-speed rail appointments. Commissioner Victor Vandergriff of Arlington said that if the privately-funded bullet train comes to fruition, "I think it's a game-changing catalyst that can take place in Texas."

Vandergriff said it's also important to consider other proposed rail lines including one possibly connecting South Texas to Monterrey, Mexico.

Transportation commissioner Jeff Moseley of Houston added that many of the state's late civic leaders would be proud to see representatives of various cities working together on such a project.

"I think John Carpenter and Amon Carter would be pleased to see this initiative," he said.

Transportation commission chairman Ted Houghton of El Paso noted that high-speed rail could fill a void left by airlines. With the Wright Amendment restrictions scheduled to be lifted from Dallas' Love Field in October, airlines are expected to focus on serving more out-of-state destinations, possibly leaving unmet demand for trips to Houston.

"The flights between Houston and Dallas, passenger load over the last 20 years have not increased," Houghton said. "We've increased this population by millions. They're not flying. If they're not flying, they must be driving. This will give them an alternative way to get across the state, and less pollution, obviously."

Transportation commission member Jeff Austin of Tyler added: "If people are going to continue moving here, we've got to find different ways to move them."

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