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Opposition to the high speed rail line gets organized

You had to figure something like this was coming. I was recently informed of NoTexasCentral.com, and I’ll let them introduce themselves:

Texas Central Railway (TCR), a Japanese funded Texas-based private railroad company, is set to build and operate a high speed train system from Dallas to Houston. With stations slated only at the ends of the line, the train will run at over 200 mph through some of Texas’ most beautiful farmland, marring the landscape and tranquility of our great state, as well as displacing families and disrupting farming and ranching operations. Closer into the terminating cities, historic neighborhoods and small businesses will be affected in irreparable ways. Property value loss, probable tax hikes to offset lost revenue from lowered property values, property loss, environmental impacts, lack of economic benefit and noise/vibration disruptions will all impact the lives of so many Texans.

We all oppose the current primary and secondary routes being selected by Texas Central Railway. Help us save our homes and farmland from this high speed train by voicing your opposition!

Their Facebook page is here. While rural counties have been resistant to the high speed rail line for some time now, the focal point of the opposition appears to be in Montgomery County, as This story linked from the Facebook page illustrates:

More than 800 people packed the Lone Star Community Center in Montgomery Monday night to learn what they can do to stop a proposed multibillion-dollar high-speed rail route that would cut through West Montgomery County and connect Houston with Dallas.

According to local legislators and county elected officials, the Texas Central Railway, a private company planning the high-speed rail, has the power of eminent domain to make the project happen.

“This is one of the biggest threats to the county I have seen in years,” former Montgomery County Judge Alan B. Sadler told the crowd. “It’s extreme, ladies and gentlemen.”

[…]

“I am not a happy camper,” said state Rep. Will Metcalf, R-Conroe, adding he is frustrated by the lack of transparency on the project. “They are moving forward and we need your help.

“I don’t believe private enterprise should have eminent domain power. In regard to the 10th Amendment, I talked a lot about this during my campaign; we are living it here today. Federal overreach, they are bypassing us at the state, the county, and that is not OK.”

Metcalf urged residents to contact U.S Rep. Kevin Brady, R-The Woodlands, U.S. Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, and U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas.

“When Montgomery County is joined together, we are unstoppable,” Metcalf said.

Precinct 2 Commissioner Charlie Riley told the crowd that even though the project would cut through his precinct, he has not been contacted by TCR about the rail line. He said he is determined to stop the project.

“Whatever we need to do to stay united and stay strong, we will support it to make sure this doesn’t happen,” Riley said.

Precinct 1 Commissioner Mike Meador said while Montgomery County Commissioners Court passed a resolution late last year that it did not support the project, he added it is time for the court to readdress that resolution and “toughen it up.”

I’ve discussed the Montgomery County issues before. At one point, Montgomery County Commissioners Court passed a resolution saying they would oppose any alignment that didn’t include the I-45 corridor. The impression I get now is that the locals there would prefer to try to kill project altogether. They’ve started collecting the support of elected officials to back them up. A story in the Leader News from a couple of weeks ago that as far as I know never appeared online mentioned three State Senators that have signed a letter to TxDOT opposing the use of eminent domain and any state funds for this project – Sen. Lois Kolkhorst was one, Sen. Brandon Creighton was another, and (oops!) I can’t remember the third. There’s a great irony here in that one of the selling points of the TCR approach has been that by not seeking public money for the rail line they can avoid a lot of the political battles and streamline the process. That sure doesn’t appear to be the case any more.

Meanwhile, the Houston-based opposition is still looking for alternate routes.

So what is the alternative? Civic leaders from the neighborhoods under threat from the two proposed routes have joined together to chart a better way forward, seeking solutions that will allow high-speed rail to serve Houston without blighting residential neighborhoods – theirs or anyone else’s. This inter-neighborhood working group has put forward two suggested approaches.

The first is to terminate the line outside Houston’s central business district, at a location such as the Northwest Transit Center, an idea that Texas Central Railroad itself has floated. Unlike many other cities, Houston has multiple commercial centers, and much of the potential ridership here is located west and northwest of downtown. An express bus service or a light-rail line could connect the terminus with downtown; at a public meeting last fall, a METRO spokesperson embraced the idea of providing such a connection. And terminating the high-speed rail line outside the Central Business District would avoid exacerbating traffic and parking problems the way a downtown terminus would, with riders from around the city having to travel downtown to reach it.

Alternatively, if a downtown terminus is deemed necessary, the approach to downtown should be routed not through residential neighborhoods but down highway or industrial corridors. A route along I-45 was one of the routes examined and rejected by the Federal Railroad Administration, but deserves reconsideration. A route along I-10, which Texas Central Railroad representatives have acknowledged as worthy of consideration, should also be investigated as a way to reach central Houston. Several other variations, involving the Hempstead/290 corridor, I-610 North Loop, and/or the Harris County Hardy Toll Road corridor, are worth looking into.

See here for the background. The actual route has not been determined yet, and as this statement from Texas Central, posted on the No Texas Central Facebook page, makes clear, even the two “preferred routes” that have been highlighted so far are really just corridors. We won’t have a clear idea of what we might get until the Federal Railroad Administration posts the scoping report to its website. In the meantime, there’s still a lot of opportunity to affect things. I’ll continue to keep an eye on it.

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27 Comments

  1. Jules says:

    Charles, thanks for covering this. Anyone interested in reading about whether or not high speed rail is a viable proposition for this area (hint: probably not), here’s a good report:

    http://reason.org/files/high_speed_rail_lessons.pdf

    I’m highly skeptical that they won’t at some point (probably pre-construction) seek Federal, State and local tax dollars. We know our State and City governments like to hand out tax dollars to private companies – (HEB, Kroger, Valero, the Walmart developer for City and Toyota for State for a few examples off the top of my head).

  2. Jules says:

    From TCR’s website http://texascentral.com/answers-to-your-questions/

    First, some people consider tax credits or a Tax Increment Financing Zone (TIRZ) to be an unacceptable form of “public subsidy.” We don’t. The Project could include the use of tax increment financing around station areas, but this would not involve additional taxes being levied. Rather, such a status would simply allow the Project to use some portion of the incremental increase in tax revenue to offset costs associated with developing station locations.

    AND:

    The Project is not interested in or predicated on any special or unique favors from local, state or federal governments. Rather, TCR wants the Project to be treated equitably should it apply for the conventional economic development tools that already exist and are routinely made available to employers and investors with projects that will generate significant local and state tax revenue, local jobs, and additional economic activity and benefit to surrounding communities.

  3. We are a group in the Oak Forest/Garden Oaks area of Houston called Concerned Citizens of Oak Forest, which is right in the middle of one of the proposed routes. We are actively opposed to the project and are working on possible plans to launch a ballot initiative to require that elevated rail first get written permission of homeowners within a set distance.

    There is already an established ordinance along these lines in regards to oil and gas wells that has been on the books for over 50 years. Our idea would make exceptions for this requirement if the rail was located within a certain distance of established mass transit corridors – like I-45, I-10 etc.

    This is a property rights issue and mass transit should be focused where it belongs – along established mass transit corridors.

    We have already done ID work on over 5,000 homes in our area and did an effort to ensure the Federal Railway Admin got hundreds of comments from our area in opposition to the train.

    You can find more about our group online at http://www.SaveOakForest.com

  4. Jules says:

    Also of note, TCR put out a press release dated Feb 6, 2015 that states this:

    “About TCP
    Texas Central Partners (TCP) is a private, Texas-based company that will develop the
    high-speed passenger railway and associated facilities. TCP and its affiliated entities
    will be responsible for the system’s design, finance, construction, operation and
    maintenance. The proposed project will not request or require grants or operational
    subsidies backed by taxpayers for its eventual construction and operation.”

    http://texascentral.com/station-page/

    However, these folks
    http://www.notexashsr.com/?page_id=71

    Have discovered that TCP is a FOREIGN limited liability company.

    Also, check out how they say they won’t request or require grants or subsidies. But yet they will go after TIRZ’s, and possibly 380’s, State economic incentives and federal loans.

    These guys appear to be very sleazy.

  5. DNAguy says:

    @Jules
    Everyone of those bullet points in the executive summary are an indictment on any mode of transportation other than air travel…. while ignoring the inherent risks, costs, and subsidies of air travel. In addition, this is referring to California’s rail project which is a whole different animal.
    § Environment: HSR creates more pollution than it prevents because building a HSR line is
    very energy-intensive. The California Air Resources board estimated there are many more
    cost-effective ways to improve the environment than building HSR between Los Angeles
    and San Francisco.
    — This can be said of ANY project that gets built ANYWHERE at any time. It takes energy to build stuff. Are you telling me it would be better to expand an airport / fly more planes than building HSR? If we all lived as we did b/f the industrial revolution, then yes, we’d have less emissions.
    § Economic Development: HSR does not create much new development; it merely redirects
    development from one area to another.
    — Can’t you say the same about air travel…. or highways…. I mean compared to what? What’s the basis here? Ridiculous.
    § Safety: While HSR is relatively safe, most potential rail passengers travel by an even safer
    mode—aviation. Thus HSR is unlikely to increase transportation safety.
    –What about car travel? If it replaces car travel than doesn’t it increase safety? Just saying this will replace air travel is ignoring a huge reason why the TEXAS train is getting built…. and that’s the increase in Dallas to Houston travel along I45.
    § Mobility: HSR is also unlikely to improve mobility since most of its potential passengers
    already travel by air. Moreover, aviation congestion will decrease significantly with the
    forthcoming implementation of the Next-Gen air traffic control system.
    –That’s a huge assumption that Next-Gen ATC is going to solve all our problems. See previous points about I 45 and the fact that the Texas project is different than Cali.
    § Choice: There is some value in providing travelers a choice of mode. However, customers
    can already choose between a low-cost bus, a fast plane or a personalized car trip. Is
    another choice necessary? Spending an equivalent amount of funds on aviation or
    highways could do much more to solve America’s transportation problems.
    — There is a limit to how much land you can pave or how much air travel we can maintain. To ignore this is being willfully ignorant.

  6. DNAguy says:

    @CCF

    What I can’t wrap my head around is that you are objecting to having HSR through your neighborhood while being perfectly ok with the freight rail that already goes through said neighborhood. Heck, the 34 st rail isn’t even a quiet zone yet.
    You do realize that the HSR trains won’t be going 200 mph through your neighborhood, right?
    At the same speeds as the freight rail, HSR trains are much, MUCH quieter.
    If I were you, I’d lobby like heck to get this line routed through Oak Forest BUT get concessions like noise reductions walls…. or getting ALL the rail lines trenched! B/c of need for HSR to be grade separated, you might even get better mobility around main street arteries such as Ella, N main, and TC Jester if you tried to be part of a solution rather than just objecting.

  7. Jules says:

    DNA – read the whole report, not just the summary and then we can talk.

    How fast will the trains be going through the neighborhoods?

  8. Jules says:

    And if you want to read any of TCR’s reports, well you can’t:

    The Project has received a several requests for copies of materials provided to current or potential investors in this project.

    The Project cannot share these documents publicly because they contain significant amounts of proprietary and confidential business information, including but not limited to, exhaustive investment-grade ridership and revenue studies, advanced engineering analysis, and detailed cost estimates for the project’s plan of finance. Maintaining the confidentiality of this information is standard practice for any private company, and furthermore, the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) tightly regulates its dissemination.

    from http://texascentral.com/answers-to-your-questions/

  9. […] Kuff reports that opposition to the Dallas-Houston Shinkansen has coalesced at NoTexasCentral.com. And I have to say, I’m intrigued by what they’ve done with the logotype. […]

  10. @DNAguy,

    We do not object to the route along 34th street. We object to an elevated structure being roughly forty feet tall being built along that route – right in the middle of our neighborhood.

    We actively pushed during the comment period for the rail company and the Federal Railway Admin to pursue other routes if they needed to be elevated, and if the company agrees to run trench the route along 34th and not elevate the entire structure we would have no issue.

    All of these ideas and comments were sent by the hundreds to the Federal Railway Admin during the comment period. Our ordinance idea does nothing more than solidify the concept that elevated rail should not run through neighborhoods. It does not change anything in terms of running at ground level.

  11. Bill says:

    @Jules – The “report” is a fairly nakedly-biased attack piece. If you change some of the words, but not the horribly flawed logic, then you can use that same piece to oppose airport expansion and freeway expansion. Why? Let’s run through it:

    1) Apples-to-sheep comparisons – The comparisons in the report aren’t even so close as to qualify as apples-to-oranges, let alone apples-to-apples. Page 10, ironically the beginning of the “HSR Realities” section:

    ” If, over the lifetime of a high-speed rail project, autos and planes become 30% more fuel-efficient (which is not an unreasonable assumption), then the energy payback period for high-speed rail rises to 30 years. And since rail lines require expensive (and energy-intensive) reconstruction about every 30 years, high-speed rail may not actually save energy at all.”

    Because airports and roads don’t require maintenance, and trains won’t get any better than they are. Right. Now.

    2) Similar to vaccines, we’re not entirely convinced that the laws of thermodynamics aren’t a conspiracy of the so-called Physicists who get paid to promote their pro-entropy ideas – If anyone tries to promote air travel as an “energy efficient” form of transportation, then you already know that they do not know what they are talking about. Even without a basic understanding of things like gravity and drag, people should understand the common-sense idea that making a metal tube fly, and at high speed, means that you spend a lot of energy doing it. Yes, there are more environmentally friendly alternatives to HSR (car pooling!), but on a per passenger-mile basis, passenger trains win over planes and single-occupant vehicles.

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Energy_efficiency_in_transportation

    3) Consistency is the hobgoblin of small minds – just because the author expects other people to have a logical and internally-consistent argument doesn’t preclude him from talking out of both orifices, like these:
    “Passenger rail users must support both the capital and operating costs of the vehicle and the capital and maintenance costs of the track. And since true high-speed rail trains cannot safely share track with freight trains, passenger HSR users must pay the entire costs to build and maintain the track as well. ”

    Two pages later: “In this context, using policy to shift more passenger travel onto rail may have the unintended consequence of displacing freight onto the highway system, increasing road congestion, producing pollution, and driving up the cost of goods.”

    So, if you want to be a NIMBY, then be a NIMBY. Your research doesn’t support any other conclusion.

  12. Steven Houston says:

    Another issue a reasonable person would have with the NIMBY’s of Oak Forest would be their requirement for the train to be in a trench going through their area. Perhaps they failed to mention how it floods there on a regular basis, my own car getting stuck a time or two in the recent past. That was at grade, imagine how often a trench system would flood’ no thanks!

  13. Jules says:

    Steven and Bill – I don’t really understand the hate for NIMBY’s. This will literally be in what used to be people’s backyards, and front yards, and houses. I think they are right to be concerned about it. If I don’t care that a company can seize my land, then I surely won’t care if a company can seize your land.

    There is no way there will be a trench.

    Bill – the report may not be perfect, but I think it’s pretty good. I would love to see TCR’s ridership and revenue studies but they won’t release them. Your vaccine analogy is way over my head.

  14. Steven Houston says:

    Jules, I don’t hate them for not wanting the project but I sure in heck find their “we’ll approve it if it gets put in a trench that will flood all the time” condition. They live there and I have friends that live there so the flooding issue is nothing new, trying to get a hugely expensive project like this derailed in such a manner is simply the wrong way to do it. I’d prefer to see it placed alongside I-45 but I wouldn’t try to sabotage it like that.

  15. Jules says:

    I did find out that a foreign limited liability company is just one that operates in another state, not another country.

    I hope the train doesn’t get built, but I don’t think it will end up flooded in a trench.

  16. Pamela says:

    Well I live in the Oak Forest area and wondered why they didn’t want it built given that the freight trains already run through there, but knowing now that it would be an elevated eyesore, I completely understand.

    What’s more, I’m on the fence about the government having the power of eminient domain and I certainly don’t believe anyone in the private sector should have it. It they want to build on private land, they’ll need to purchase that property from willing sellers.

  17. All the ordinance we are proposing would is require written permission from homeowners within 400 before being allowed to construct an elevated system in their backyard. It is the same concept that has been in place in regards to oil and gas well for over 50 years in Houston.

    It does not stop the train from being built, it simply applies a little common sense, and makes exceptions for where elevated high speed train projects should be focused…along mass transit corridors….rather than in people’s back yard.

  18. Joke says:

    Pamela,
    Given you concerns over abuse of government power, what do you think of Concerned Citizens of Oak Forest’s attempt to enlist the power of the government to stop TCR from using the land they acquire from willing sellers for their rail project?

    Giving a veto to landowners within 400 (ft?) of the project would create the potential for an enormous burden (note that 400 ft is about the length of two city blocks).

  19. Jules says:

    For all sellers of land between Houston and Dallas to be willing sellers, TCR will have to outlay huge amounts of cash. Some won’t want to sell for any amount. Eminent Domain will come into play. TCR will use the power of the government to acquire land from people.

    The enormous infrastructure of the proposed HSR will affect homes for more than 2 city blocks.

    For TCR to say it has ridership and revenue studies that prove the HSR is viable and then refuse to release the studies is ridiculous. If these studies in any way shape or form influence the building of this boondoggle, they should immediately be made public.

  20. @Joke,

    You misunderstand the ordinance – or I explained poorly.

    The ordinance we are proposing would only apply to elevated rail. If TCR wanted to run along the 34th street route without elevating the whole system 40-60 feet in the air they would not encounter any issues with this ordinance – as it would not apply. It would also only apply to the City of Houston, since it would be a City of Houston charter amendment.

    There is really no reason why the train must continue all the way into Downtown. There is no infrastructure in place Downtown to handle parking, passengers and other issues. Meanwhile a location like Northwest Mall is for sale and could easily handle the needed infrastructure, has plenty of space, and is currently for sale.

    With only 5% of jobs located Downtown it makes little sense to not find a more centrally located terminal to area business hubs, like Downtown, the Energy Corridor, Greenway Plaza, and the Woodlands.

    Areas like the Woodlands are begging to have the train run along I45 to their area, and areas like our neighborhood will be disrupted for no tangible reason.

    Let’s encourage mass transit projects that make sense, and travel areas that they belong – along established mass transit corridors like 45 or 290, and not elevate them 40-60 feet through residential areas. It is just common sense.

  21. Personally, I think it needs to have at least one “non-express” run a day, with subsidiary stops in Waco and College Station.

  22. Jules says:

    It’s my understanding that the plan is to have one stop, around College Station somewhere. Doesn’t look like any of the route options are all that close to Waco.

    It already would take 50% longer by HSR than plane (travel time). A flight is 60 minutes and the HSR would be 90 minutes with one stop. I estimate a stop would add around 15 minutes based on Eckels saying it would be 77 minutes without a stop.

  23. […] Off the Kuff reports on opposition to the proposed high speed rail line. […]

  24. This morning the company announced that the route along 34th street through Oak Forest was no longer being considered and the utility option was their focus. This is a great victory for the people of Oak Forest and surrounding communities who would have needlessly had their neighborhoods torn up. The alternative routes that are being considered make much more sense.

  25. Jules says:

    TCR doesn’t make the ultimate decision about which routes will be considered, the FRA does.

  26. The FRA cannot force a private company to build anything anywhere..period.

    TCR indicated their preferred route is the utility corridor. We will continue to monitor the process and review the draft EIS when it is published – however it is highly unlikely in our view they will revert back to the BNSF Option 1 route after making such public comments.

  27. Jules says:

    Correct. But the FRA can include the Oak Forest route in the EIS. And the EIS could eliminate the utility corridor.

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