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Northwest Mall could gain new life as terminal for Houston-Dallas bullet train

Texas Central Partners announced Monday it has chosen Northwest Mall as its preferred high-speed rail station in the Houston area. Renderings of the station were unveiled during the announcement. Photo: Texas Central Partners

Once a Houston destination for shopping, movies and visits with Santa, the site of Northwest Mall is poised for revival as a bullet train terminal, with local officials and train backers seeing dollar signs from the sales tax growth potential.

Texas Central Partners and Houston-area elected officials on Monday announced that the company, which is seeking federal approval for a 240-mile high-speed train line, has chosen the mall's 45-acre tract near Loop 610 and U.S. 290 as its preferred site for the southern terminal.

Mayor Sylvester Turner called the announcement further proof of a dramatic change in how — and where — people will travel in the Houston region.

"We are moving to a new phase in this city," Turner said at a Monday ceremony announcing the site selection and releasing renderings of the proposed station.

The station would alter mobility for miles around it, as Houston — with some yet-to-be-determined help from Texas Central — aims to connect the location to downtown, both Houston-area airports and other major job and entertainment centers.

The announcement was timed to coincide with a public hearing Monday night in Cypress on the high-speed rail line, where critics lined up to lament the plan, which calls for trains on elevated tracks.

"We have been shouting this from the rooftops ... it does not cash flow," said Waller County Judge Trey Duhon, who said he fears the company will seek a government bailout if allowed to build. "It may not run through your property, but it will run through all of our pocketbooks."

The project, expected to cost between $15 billion and $18 billion to build, must receive federal approval to proceed, even though it is privately funded.

Though vigorously opposed by rural areas where the train is expected to speed by at more than 200 mph, Texas Central has broad support in the metro areas. Both the Houston and Dallas regions are expected to swell to 10 million residents by 2035.

That growth will require new ways to move, officials said, for both regions to reach their economic potential.

"Right now, we compete against Dallas. But with that 90-minute trip, we will compete with Dallas," Harris County Precinct 4 Commissioner Jack Cagle said.

Texas Central has an option to buy the Northwest Mall land, said Jack Matthews, who is handling property acquisition for the company.

BULLET TRAIN: Meetings for Houston-Dallas line kick off in North Texas

The announcement of Northwest Mall as a terminal largely was expected, as the mall remained the most viable site to put a train station along Hempstead Road in the area around Loop 610. It also emerged from a federal environmental review as the most practical site in terms of displacing fewer homes and businesses.

Still, the line will affect landowners along Hempstead as the tracks extend from the proposed station into northwest Harris and southern Waller counties.

Texas Central CEO Carlos Aguilar said the Houston site was chosen because its location gives the company ready access to many Houston-area travelers. The area around Loop 610 and U.S. 290, essentially, is the population center of the region, as development has spread rapidly north and west of the urban core.

Marc Watts, chairman of the Greater Houston Partnership, said the spot "seems obvious to me" as an economic catalyst.

If built, the train terminal would create hundreds of jobs at the neglected retail site and surrounding properties by jump-starting investment.

"This is a huge step, and not just for the Northwest Mall location," Turner said. "It will have a remarkable effect."

Turner said the train will better connect Houstonians to northern Texas, boost development north of Uptown and revive a mall that, "has pretty much been kind of ... dormant for a long time."
Almost all of the stores within the mall itself are closed. Only a handful of venues with exterior entrances remain open.

"It used to be the place, everyone went there," recalled Melissa Harrelson, 41, who grew up less than three miles from the mall.

Various reasons have been given for the mall's demise, ranging from changes in the surrounding community's affluence to new retail that opened up and outpaced the mall's ability to hang onto major retailers. It is one of many malls in the Houston area to face hard times.

Transit improvements

Redeveloping the site into a major train hub that would attract an estimated 18,000 travelers daily is expected to result in new restaurants, shops and hotels in the vicinity. Plans call for trains to leave every 30 minutes throughout most of the day from Houston, making the trip to Dallas in around 90 minutes. A stop also is planned in the Roans Prairie area of eastern Grimes County, between College Station and Huntsville.

The station also means road and transit improvements. The company in a statement said it expects road improvements along Post Oak Road at Hempstead Road, Post Oak Road at Old Katy Road and West 18th Street at Hempstead Road.

City and company officials in August agreed to share information and develop a plan for road and transit improvements.

Prior to the agreement, downtown officials and some city leaders were discouraged when an early analysis by Texas Central showed it would be cost-prohibitive to bring bullet trains inside Loop 610.

Though not certain, Metropolitan Transit Authority chairwoman Carrin Patman said the hope is to develop light rail between the high-speed train terminal and downtown.

"What we'd like to see is something where maybe there is an opportunity for partnership, something that benefits both sides, which we're looking for, for this and other parts of the (Metro) service area," Patman said.

All of those plans for encouraging growth hinge on the trains ever getting on the tracks.

'Devil is in the details'

The train plan is vehemently opposed by rural landowners and officials who say it only benefits the metro regions, while ruining their quality of life and tranquility.

Skeptics have cast doubt on the proposal, ranging from its business sense to claims made by Texas Central about noise, visual effects and ridership claims.

"At first I was very excited. But the devil is in the details and it is not great," said Nel Coffey, a Jersey Village resident who travels frequently to Dallas to visit family.

Coffey also questioned the value of pursuing rail, when other travel technologies show more promise.

"We should not be looking at a 50-year-old train that is going to destroy people's lives," she said.

The Federal Railroad Administration hosted the Cypress hearing and another Monday in Madisonville so the public can comment on the preliminary environmental report for the train project, backed by a cadre of state investors using trains developed in Japan.

Six meetings were held last week in northern and central Texas. Company officials kicked off those meetings by announcing the site for the Dallas terminal, on a tract already owned by the company south of downtown.

Texas Central said it hopes to have federal clearance for the line by the end of the year. If approved, construction could start in 2019. The environmental review estimated construction would take about five years.

: chron

 

 

 

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