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eminent domain

The next eminent domain fight

Coming to a Lege near you.

Holly Reed, Texas Central’s managing director of external affairs, said the company prefers not to use eminent domain “at all” and would rather work out amicable sales agreements for the thousands of parcels needed to construct the 240-mile project across 10 counties. And the company vows to minimize how much the line will impact the land around it.

“Each person has a different story about what’s important to them,” Reed said. “We listen to hear, you know, are we impacting your driveway or your stock tank, and we come back, and we work to see what we can do to solve for those problems.”

Given the fierce opposition to the project in rural areas, eminent domain is likely to become a necessity at some point. Texas Central remains embroiled in the ongoing debate about its authority to condemn land. In one Harris County case, a judge agreed the company has such powers. But that same legal question is at the heart of other ongoing court cases across Texas.

Meanwhile, a newly elected lawmaker who has long opposed the project plans to file legislation that addresses what he calls “systemic flaws” in state statutes that arguably allow the company to condemn the land it will need.

“It’s nothing more than you and I sitting in a room with a couple hundred million dollars and saying, ‘We’re a railroad company, and we’re going to condemn your property,’” said state Rep. Ben Leman, R-Anderson. “And then the landowner is sitting there scratching his head and saying, ‘Who do I turn to?’”

One of Leman’s biggest concerns about the project is that even if Texas Central can use eminent domain, there is apparently no state agency explicitly charged with determining if its plans for high-speed rail would benefit the public enough to warrant condemnation proceedings in the courts.

But once upon a time, there was.

[…]

Kyle Workman, the chairman and president of Texans Against High-Speed Rail, said the company will still face intense battles at the county level.

“At every one of those intersections where the railroad crosses a county road, there is going to be a permit that is required,” Workman said. “They’re going to have to prove that they have eminent domain, and the counties are not going to allow them to take the property.”

Reed said that Texas Central would like to work “collaboratively” with the counties in order to get the project built and become a “major economic engine” for Texas.

Meanwhile, lawmakers will return to Austin for a new legislative session that begins in January. And Leman expects Texas Central to be the target of legislation. In 2017, 10 lawmakers filed more than 20 bills aimed at the high-speed rail line. But for the second legislative session in a row, the project emerged relatively unscathed after bills aimed at hamstringing or killing it failed to get much traction.

Leman, though, thinks there could be movement in the regulatory chess game facing Texas Central as he and others file bills next year that try to balance private property rights and economic enterprise. What would upcoming legislation look like? Well, Leman’s playing that one close to the vest.

“This should be a big session to discuss this project,” Leman said. “But I don’t want to tip my hand too quick because they are not giving me their hand.”

I’ll leave it to you to click over and see what the agency of the past, which may be revived in some form, was. Rep. Leman is the former Grimes County Judge, and is almost certainly the leading opponent to Texas Central in the Lege right now. Whether he succeeds or not, who knows, but I agree this will be a big fight in 2019, and it won’t necessarily break down along predictable lines. Texas Central is getting to a point where it will become difficult to stop them if that is one’s goal, but they’re not quite there yet. Making eminent domain difficult or impossible for them to use would be a significant obstacle.

The state of the high speed rail line

A good long read from the Trib.

Private developer Texas Central Partners LLC plans to build a train that will shuttle people between Dallas and Houston in 90 minutes along a 240-mile route roughly parallel to a highway corridor that normally takes four hours to drive. This new link between two of the largest metropolitan areas in the nation — home to roughly half of the state’s 28 million residents — will help create “a super economy” says Holly Reed, Texas Central’s managing director of external affairs.

Texas Central sees the line as a mammoth example of a private entity addressing an infrastructure demand that government agencies are increasingly unable to tackle — and a chance to hook Americans on an alternative to highways that’s long connected major cities in Asia and Europe.

“There’s no doubt once people ride this train, they will want trains like this to go other places,” Reed adds.

The company’s ambitious vision has arrived just as American cities are starting to grasp the detrimental side effects and financial unsustainability of car-centric infrastructure that’s dominated urban planning since the end of World War II.

Texas Central officials say they have raised and spent at least $125 million, of which at least $75 million has come from Texas investors and individuals. In September, the company announced that it secured an additional $300 million in loans from two Japanese entities. But before Texas Central can create an interstate high-speed network in the United States, it’s got to prove high-speed rail is viable in Texas. Even as the company pushes forward with development — and brings on construction and operations partners — it faces daunting hurdles.

The company is embroiled in legal and bureaucratic debates about whether a private company can use eminent domain, a process that allows entities to condemn land it needs for a project and forcibly buy it from owners who aren’t willing to sell.

At the state Capitol, the bullet train represents the collision of two things that Republicans — who control Texas government — hold dear: private property rights and an unrestrained free market. And for two legislative sessions in a row, the free market has largely come out on top. The project has emerged relatively unscathed after bills aimed at hamstringing or killing it failed to get much traction.

“Big business is a big deal in the state of Texas,” says Kyle Workman, who heads the grassroots opposition group Texans Against High-Speed Rail, an organization that has galvanized rural Texans to lobby local and state leaders to stop the project. Workman says they’ll keep trying when lawmakers reconvene in January.

The political debate is an outgrowth of a larger question confronting a state where most people now live in urban areas: How much should rural residents have to sacrifice to solve problems born in the cities they intentionally avoided or outright fled?

We’re all familiar with the outline of the debate, so read the story for some more details and personal experiences. I do have sympathy for the folks in the rural counties who are in the path of the rail line, but if we were talking about building a new highway, or expanding I-45, no one would blink an eye. I mean, look at how much got bulldozed and paved over during the Katy Freeway widening. There’s a great unmet need for transportation capacity in this state, and given a choice between building high speed rail lines and building more interstate highway lanes, I’ll pick the former 100% of the time. I wish there were a way to do this without taking someone’s property, but until we perfect Star Trek transporter technology, there won’t be. I don’t know what else there is to say.

People who oppose the high speed rail line continue to oppose the high speed rail line

The DEIS hearings go as you’d expect them to.

Meetings to discuss a proposed high-speed train between Houston and Dallas pulled into some of the areas most opposed to the project on Tuesday night, as federal environmental meetings continue to make their way to Houston.

Residents in Jewett – perhaps the epicenter of animosity over the 240-mile line – showed up in droves to Leon County High School. At points, with a high school basketball game next door, parking was scarce as residents and elected officials from at least five counties came to the session.

[…]

Concerned about their rural character and their property rights, many landowners said they simply didn’t want train tracks crossing the county. Leon County commissioners have passed three resolutions and numerous other items intended as roadblocks to the rail line.

Many speakers Tuesday emotionally noted how the train risks their rural charm, some of whom live on land that has been in their families for five, six and seven generations. Opponents spoke of hunting and outdoor activities that the train would disrupt, along with aesthetics and possible noise and safety fears. At least two attendees suggested feral hogs in the area would run wild because of worries of shooting near the tracks.

Tales ranged from worries about a landowner’s autistic son who reacts poorly to loud noises, decades of family campouts, emergency response times for elderly ranchers and property sovereignty.

“This land is irreplaceable to us,” Logan Wilson said, reading remarks prepared for him by his daughter. “I believe we have the right to keep what is ours.”

Of 36 people who asked to speak publicly at the session, all voiced opposition to the project. About two dozen others asked about their feelings said they were against it. No one, when asked by a reporter, said they supported the train.

See here for some background. On the one hand, I sympathize with these folks. The train line will go through all these rural counties, but there’s only one station for them. I’ve no doubt I’d be unhappy in their position. On the other hand, public infrastructure projects have taken land from people since forever. It’s a price of progress, and it’s always been this way. The people affected get a chance to affect where the project is built, they get a reasonable price for the land that they lose, and let’s be honest, in this case they’d be getting a lot less attention and consideration if the project in question were another highway. I sympathize, but I think this rail line will be good for Texas, and I want to see it happen. I want the people affected to be treated fairly, but not to the point where they get a veto.

Texas Central picks builders

Noted for the record.

Backers of a Texas bullet train are moving to the next stop, selecting a team to build the Houston-to-Dallas line, despite not having a clear shot – yet – at construction.

Texas Central on Monday morning announced it reached agreement with Irving-based Fluor Enterprises and The Lane Construction Corporation, based in Connecticut, for further refinement and study of the proposed route. Once financing for the project, expected to cost at least $12 billion, is secured and federal approvals are obtained, the companies would then be the primary design-builders of the line.

[…]

Texas Central, which despite some opposition emerged from the state legislative session unscathed, is also awaiting a federal environmental process necessary to proceed. Company officials are also lining up financing for the project. Any construction will have to wait for those outcomes.

In 2014, officials predicted work would start by 2017. Based on typical timelines for federal review, the earliest construction could start on the line would be late 2018, meaning a 2023 completion, according to Texas Central’s previous timelines.

The company also continues to face opposition, especially in rural areas of Texas where some landowners remain steadfast in not selling their land, and local elected officials have said the project provides little benefit.

I post this not because it’s particularly interesting but to put a pin in where we stand today. Texas Central survived the legislative session without anything bad happening to them, and if all goes more or less as they say, they will have started construction on the line by the time the 2019 Lege gavels in. Will that be sufficient insurance against further legislative meddling? Maybe, I don’t know. On the one hand, a project in progress ought to be harder to kill, but on the other hand since this project will necessarily involve some taking of land, that may just amp up the urgency. Ask me again in January of 2019.

Assuming the legislative field is clear for now, the remaining hurdles are as noted the draft environmental impact statement, and the ongoing legal skirmishes regarding whether or not Texas Central qualifies as a “railroad” and thus can exercise eminent domain. I don’t expect anything weird from the DEIS though one never knows. What I really don’t know is what happens if individual landowners can keep TCR away from their property. If they don’t have any legal leverage, I’m not sure how this thing gets built. I’m sure TCR has its best people working on that, so we’ll just have to see how it plays out.

Texas Central survives the session

It looked bad for awhile there. but in the end no significant bill that would have obstructed the high speed rail line was passed.

In the recent Legislature, over 20 bills were filed that took aim at a high-speed rail project between Dallas and Houston, including some that may have killed the plan. Ultimately, just two bills passed — one ensuring the state won’t pick up any costs for the train and the other requiring adequate safety measures.

Texas Central Partners, the group developing the rail line, didn’t object to the bills.

[…]

[Texas Central has] always pledged to not seek state or federal grants, a key selling point. That’s one reason conservative groups have praised the project and warned against government overreach.

The state has an opportunity to innovate and lead the nation, wrote a chief strategist for the American Legislative Exchange Council.

“To realize a boon to taxpayers, Texas merely has to allow the free market to operate by not expanding government in the form of discriminatory legislation,” Bartlett Cleland wrote in an April report.

There’s still a long way to go before we can travel from Dallas to Houston in a 90-minute train ride. Federal regulators are working on a draft environmental impact study, expected to be finished this year. More public meetings and revisions will follow, and when construction of the 240-mile line begins, that’s expected to take about five years. That would make the train operational by around 2023.

Long beforehand, Texas Central has to raise billions, and Austin represents a potential roadblock.

“We talk to investors all the time, and one of their questions is, ‘What’s going to happen in the Legislature?’” said Holly Reed, managing director of external affairs for Texas Central. That question has been answered, she said. But only for now.

Some landowners along the potential routes have opposed the project all along, insisting that a bullet train would disrupt their rural way of life and bring few benefits. They’re well organized and have clout with their elected representatives.

They pushed for eminent domain limits and a financial bond from the rail company. While those bills died, opponents aren’t backing off, said Kyle Workman, president of Texans Against High-Speed Rail. They plan to fight all along the route, especially attempts to use eminent domain to acquire right of way. “They have to win every case — all we have to do is win one,” Workman said. “They’re gonna have to fight the battle in all these rural counties. Good luck.”

The number of landowners opposed to the train is dwarfed by those who could benefit from it. But opponents are more energized, said Mark Jones, political science fellow at Rice University. And that enthusiasm gap matters in local elections. “That small vocal minority is intensely opposed and more likely to vote in the Republican primary — and vote against anyone who’s not working to stop the train,” Jones said. “Until it’s built, Texas Central is gonna have to worry about this every two years.”

See here for the last update I had during the session. I suppose the death of the anti-high speed rail bills wasn’t newsy enough to draw attention, or maybe I just missed it. In any event, nothing bad happened for TCR, so barring a late addition to the special session agenda, they can move forward for now. The draft environmental impact study will be a big deal, as will the ongoing eminent domain litigation. With a bit of luck, Texas Central will be far enough along in construction in the spring of 2019 that there will be fewer opportunities to cut them off at the knees legislatively. That part is up to them.

Where do we stand with the anti-Texas Central bills?

They’re in the House, and we’ll see what happens from there.

The four bills before the House Transportation Committee represented some of opponents’ latest efforts to stop the project in its track. But project supporters and Texas Central Partners executives told the committee that some of the bills were unusually anti-free market for Republican-backed legislation in Texas.

“’A better business environment than Texas’ is not a phrase that I’m used to saying, but that’s what this bill contemplates and it’s not how we do things here,” Texas Rail Advocates executive director Chris Lippincott said about House Bill 2104.

That legislation would require any private companies building high-speed rail lines to file a bond that would cover the cost of reverting all land bought for the project back to its previous use if train service ever stops. Texas Central leaders said such a requirement would be so costly that it would deter potential investors from putting money into the rail line.

“The project would never get built,” Texas Central president Tim Keith said.

The bills debated this week were left pending in the House transportation committee. They are among more than 20 pieces of legislation filed by 10 lawmakers in both chambers aimed at the project. But with just a few weeks left in the session, no bill that could fatally disrupt ongoing development of the rail line has passed either chamber. And legislators have so far had little traction with bills or maneuvers that would prohibit the company from using eminent domain to acquire land needed for the project.

[…]

Another bill before the House committee, House Bill 2163, would require that the bullet train tracks running through Dallas, Ellis, Waller and Harris counties be built on columns that are 40 feet high. Much of the rural opposition is rooted in fears that the train tracks will divide existing properties and form a barrier restricting the movements of people, livestock and other animals. They also say it will restrict development spilling over from the state’s major metro areas.

“The best way to protect growth and development in that area is for this train to be elevated on pylons on a viaduct,” said the bill’s author, state Rep. John Wray, R-Waxahachie.

Company officials said they can’t yet commit to building the track at 40 feet for such long distances because the project is still going through environmental review. But Keith said 60 percent of the tracks will be on viaducts. And he told Wray that expected population growth is a factor when the company considers where to raise the tracks on viaducts instead of earthen berms.

One tweak to state law pushed by opponents of the project is not currently drawing Texas Central’s opposition. House Bill 2172 would prevent legislators from spending state funds to plan, build, maintain or operate a privately owned high-speed rail line. That is the companion legislation to Senate Bill 977, which the upper chamber passed last month. Both bills have wording similar to a provision in the Senate’s proposed budget.

“As we’ve repeatedly stated, this is being built without state money,” Keith said. “The bill is consistent with our plan of finance.”

See here for the background on the Senate bills that had been passed out of committee. In addition to SB977, two more bills were subsequently passed by the full Senate, SB979 and SB975. The House bills mentioned in this story, all of which were left pending in committee on Thursday, would need to be passed out of committee today as that’s the deadline for any bill to receive final consideration. I’ll keep an eye on that and check back later. All things considered, so far things don’t look too bad for Texas Central, but as we know with the Lege, it ain’t over till sine die.

The Trib and the DMN on the train

The Texas Tribune and the Dallas Morning News are teaming up on a deep dive into the Texas Central Railway’s high-speed rail proposal. This story, the third in their set, explains where the money to build this thing may come from.

But, really, how does a private company go about lining up the billions of dollars it needs to pay for a 240-mile bullet train line? And is it possible for it to actually turn a profit?

First, it’s important to distinguish between financing and funding a major infrastructure project, said Michael Bennon, managing director of Stanford University’s Global Projects Center.

Financing is how Texas Central will get enough money to build the high-speed rail line in the first place. Funding is the revenue that will keep the train running.

“They’re two very different things and people get them really mixed up,” Bennon said.

Financing is the more complicated side of the equation because it’s essentially a high-stakes gamble that may not pay off for decades.

Texas Central executives are confident they’ll be able to find the money, in large part because investors are hungry for “real assets” — tangible projects, basically — that could provide bigger returns than what’s available in today’s market.

Managers of huge pots of money, like private equity funds or pension funds, “have obligations to pay their plan holders and they need long-dated assets,” Keith said.

In other words, low interest rates and other factors have meant that there aren’t a lot of places to park portions of those pools that will reliably pay out to investors over long periods of time.

That’s part of why pension funds, which are supposed to be how workers get paid their retirement, are seeking out safer investments.

Upfront money from investors will pay for roughly a third of the project, Keith said. The other two-thirds will be debt.

So far, Texas Central has raised about $115 million from investors.

Keith said Texas Central is considering a range of financing options, including federal credit programs that would essentially provide cheap loans aimed at spurring infrastructure construction.

[…]

More private capital is finding its way into projects that were once the domain of government.

The McKinsey Global Institute recently noted that institutional investors — like the pension and private equity funds Keith mentioned — “seem like an obvious source of capital” in a world where increasingly urgent infrastructure projects are seriously underfunded.

Its report said institutional investors have $120 trillion to move around. Blackstone Group, the world’s biggest private equity firm, is reported to be raising as much as $40 billion for infrastructure investments.

Of course, there are caveats.

“To attract these investors, governments and other stakeholders need to develop their project pipelines, remove regulatory and structural barriers, and build stronger markets for infrastructure assets,” the McKinsey report said.

Public-private partnerships, like toll roads, have had mixed success, including in Texas.

Still, the McKinsey report underscores the hunger for worthy projects.

“Insurance companies and banks recount instances in which investors outbid each other in a rush to finance the rare infrastructure deals they consider ‘bankable’ and that have appropriate risk-return profiles,” the report said.

All that goes to say there are institutions that could theoretically bankroll a high-speed rail line. But only if it’s a sustainable business.

And that points back to the second part of paying for a big infrastructure project: funding.

Infrastructure projects rely on two main sources of funding — taxes or user fees, Bennon said. For public transit, it’s usually a combination of both.

Texas Central has promised not to use tax money as funding. That leaves ticket sales, plus smaller sources of side revenue from station parking fees and concessions. Texas Central has said the project passes muster, by that measure.

“This project is fully financeable based on ticket sales,” Keith said.

That’s what experts — and critics — are skeptical about.

There’s more, so go read the whole thing. If you want to read the other stories, here they are:

Texas’ rural roots and urban future are on a high-speed collision course

“Come and take it”: Eminent domain dispute at heart of bullet train battles

Here come the anti-Texas Central bills

From the inbox:

[Tuesday], a group of key state lawmakers filed a slate of legislation to push back against Texas Central Railway’s controversial proposal to construct a high-speed rail line between Dallas and Houston. Senators Birdwell (R-Granbury), Creighton (R-Conroe), Kolkhorst (R-Brenham), Perry (R-Lubbock), and Schwertner (R-Georgetown) joined with Representatives Ashby (R-Lufkin), Bell (R-Magnolia), Cook (R-Corsicana), Schubert (R-Caldwell), and Wray (R-Waxahachie) to file a total of 18 bills addressing a number of concerns ranging from protecting landowners threatened by eminent domain abuse to ensuring the state isn’t later forced to bail out the private project with taxpayer dollars.

[…]

The following bills were filed this morning:

SB 973 by Creighton/HB 2168 by Bell (Railroad Determination Before Surveys) – prohibits a private high-speed rail entity from entering private property to conduct a survey unless the Texas Department of Transportation (TxDOT) first determines that the surveying entity is, in fact, a railroad.

SB 974 by Creighton/HB 2181 by Cook (Option Contract Protection) – voids any high-speed rail option contracts held by a high-speed rail entity upon a bankruptcy initiated by or against the entity.

SB 975 by Birdwell/HB 2169 by Schubert (Security Requirements) – provides a framework of minimum security requirements to be followed during the construction and operation of a private high-speed rail line. Requires the high-speed rail authority to coordinate security efforts with state and local law enforcement, as well as disaster response agencies.

SB 977 by Schwertner/HB 2172 by Ashby (No Taxpayer Bailout) – prohibits the legislature from appropriating new funds, or allowing state agencies to utilize existing funds, to pay any costs related to the construction, maintenance, or operation of a private high-speed rail in Texas.

SB 978 by Schwertner/HB 2104 Bell (Property Restoration Bond) – requires a private high-speed rail entity to file a bond with the Texas Department of Transportation (TxDOT) sufficient to restore property used for the rail service to the property’s original conditions if the service ceases operation.

SB 979 by Schwertner/HB 2179 by Cook (Right of Repurchase for Non-HSR Use) – prohibits an entity that operates or plans to operate a high-speed rail from using property acquired for purposes other than high-speed rail. If the high-speed rail authority doesn’t use the property for that specific purpose, the original landowner must be given the opportunity to repurchase the land.

SB 980 by Schwertner/HB 2167 by Schubert (Put Texas First) – prohibits any state money from being used for any purpose related to a privately owned high-speed rail, unless the state acquires and maintains a lien in order to secure the repayment of state funds. Requires that the state’s lien be superior to all other liens, effectively making Texas a priority creditor.

SB 981 by Kolkhorst/HB 2162 by Wray (Interoperability) – requires an entity constructing a high-speed rail line in Texas to demonstrate compatibility with more than one type of train technology.

SB 982 by Perry/HB 2173 by Ashby (High-Speed Rail Feasibility Study) – upon request of a legislator, the Texas Department of Transportation (TxDOT) must generate a feasibility study of a proposed high-speed rail project. The study must indicate whether the project is for a public use, whether it will be financially viable, and what impact of the project will have on local communities.

The full press release is here, and a Chron story about it is here. I was expecting some bills to be filed for the purpose of throwing sand in TCR’s gears, but this was more than I expected. Still, the basic dynamics of this fight have not changed as far as I can tell. The legislators leading it are primarily rural – even the ones who are based in suburban areas represent a lot of rural turf as well – and there are only so many of them. I’ve yet to see any legislator from a big urban area sign on to this. Which is not to say that at least some of them won’t go along with their rural colleagues, especially the urban Republicans, but that’s the ground on which this battle will be fought and won. If these legislators can convince enough of their urban colleagues to join them, then TCR is in a world of hurt. If not – if TCR can hold on to the urbanites – then it can survive the session and maybe get to a point where actual construction begins. Getting one or more of Greg Abbott, Dan Patrick, Joe Straus, and Ken Paxton to pick a side would help that faction greatly as well. Keep an eye on these bills as the committee hearings get off the ground. The DMN has more.

Texas Central withdraws its land access lawsuits

Interesting.

The private developer of a planned bullet train between Dallas and Houston has withdrawn more than a dozen lawsuits against Texas landowners that sought court orders allowing the company access to private property to survey land for the 240-mile project.

Texas Central Partners officials said they are instead going to try and have an “open dialogue” with landowners about letting the company onto their land.

“We’re stepping back and going back to conversations and taking some of the heat out of our process,” said Texas Central President Tim Keith.

Texas Central Partners is developing a 240-mile bullet train line intended to transport passengers between Houston and Dallas in 90 minutes with a stop near Bryan. The company has partnered with Japanese train operator JR Central to bring its bullet train technology to Texas. The project has drawn support from officials in Houston and Dallas but opposition from communities and landowners that are expected to be near the train’s route.

In court filings, the company argued that state law allows it to enter private property to survey land that may be used for a potential route because it is a railroad. A group called Texans Against High-Speed Rail have said the company shouldn’t be considered a railroad because it doesn’t currently operate any rail lines.

In one Harris County lawsuit, attorneys for a landowner echoed that argument. A trial on the merits of those legal arguments was set for July, according to the Harris County District Clerk’s office.

Keith said Tuesday that the company was confident it would have secured a ruling in its favor. Texas Central and landowners had already settled 21 other similar legal filings. The company said the decision to withdraw the remaining suits was largely based on the fact that it’s already reached access and land-purchase options with more than 3,000 landowners.

See here and here for some background. Seems a little weird to me, but I’ll take them at their word for now. The Chron adds some details.

The company planning high-speed rail service between Houston and Dallas announced Tuesday it has reached preliminary agreements to buy property from nearly one-third of the landowners along the planned route, including half of those in two counties where vocal opposition has been strongest.

Texas Central said they have reached option agreements with owners of about 30 percent of the necessary parcels in 10 counties. The option agreements bind property owners to selling the right of way for the train, with the company paying them now for the right to purchase the land once Texas Central has final federal approvals and the funding to build the line, estimated to cost $12 billion.

“This is a significant step in the progress of the high-speed train and it reflects the positive dialogue we have had with landowners along the route,” Texas Central CEO Carlos Aguilar said in a statement. “Texans see the many benefits of a system that will provide a safe, reliable and productive alternative to the state’s transportation demands.”

Texas Central said 50 percent of the parcels needed in Waller and Grimes counties are covered by the option agreements. Landowners in the two counties have been some of the most vocally opposed to the line, which they say will ruin the rural character of the area. Many also have accused the company of heavy handed tactics negotiating with land owners.

Grimes County Judge Ben Leman, chairman of Texans Against High-Speed Rail, said the concerns with how property owners were approached should make people doubt the support Texas Central claims.

“If you are a landowner and you are sitting in your house and someone comes to your door and says they have eminent domain, or you can sign this agreement and we’ll pay 5 percent down… are you going to use eminent domain and cross your fingers,” Leman said.

[…]

[Leman] predicted the legislative session will be the “next big battleground” as the company seeks to have state lawmakers affirm some of its rights to use eminent domain, including a remedy to counties that have voted not to issue any construction permits to any entity that doesn’t have eminent domain authority, if the entity is crossing a public street.

We definitely agree on the Lege being the next battleground. I’ve got my eyes open for relevant bills. Swamplot has more.

Texas Central land survey case will go to trial

This is a little complicated.

A major decision standing in the way of a proposed high-speed rail project connecting Houston to Dallas has been scheduled for trial.

District Judge Joseph “Tad” Halbach denied Texas Central Railroad summary judgment in a land survey case in Harris County Dec. 16, sending the case to full trial scheduled for July 3, 2017.

Texas Central is in the process of surveying land to determine the best route for the proposed rail. As a result of Halbach’s ruling, the company will not be able to survey on the defendant’s property until after the trial.

Texas Central officials said, although they were disappointed in the court’s decision to send the case to a full trial, they believe their arguments will be successful in the end.

“Contrary to what opponents are saying, [Halbach] did not issue any opinion on the company’s operations or its rights under state law,” the statement said. “The decision does not set any kind of precedent, and we will show in a full trial that state law, established for more than a century, clearly gives railroad companies the right to conduct land surveys without interference. This is needed to determine the most advantageous high-speed train route.”

Texans Against High-Speed Rail—a group opposing the project—is contesting the idea that Texas Central is an official railroad company under state law and therefore does not have eminent domain authority; in other words, Texas Central does not have the authority to force private landowners to sell their land. TAHSR released a statement celebrating Halbach’s decision.

See here for some background. The point is that the denial of summary judgment is not in any way a ruling on the merits of the case, it’s just saying there has to actually be a trial to sort that out. Of course Texas Central would have liked to prevail on summary judgment – every plaintiff wants to win without having to go through the full process. They didn’t get that, so a trial it will be. Note that while Judge Halbach made the summary judgment ruling, he will not be the judge at trial, as he was among the judges swept out in November. Shouldn’t make any difference, I just wanted to note that in case anyone gets confused when they see another judge’s name associated with this next year. The Star-Telegram, BisNow, the Chron, and the Press have more.

Early eminent domain dispute for Texas Central

It was over before it started.

Lawyers for a proposed high-speed rail line between Houston and Dallas withdrew their request for entry to a local landowner’s property, after opponents and the landowner opposed it in front of a Harris County judge, according to opponents of the project.

“It is a great day for the vindication of landowner rights,” lawyer Blake Beckham of Dallas said.

In a statement, Texas Central confirmed the hearing, but was less decisive about its significance.

“No ruling was issued.,” the company said. “The parties agreed to come back to the court as soon as possible to have another hearing.”

Beckham represented Calvin House, owner of 440 acres in northwestern Harris County. Texas Central, planners of the high-speed rail line, want access to House’s property as they determine the best route for the train line. In its filings, the company cited its power of eminent domain as a railroad.

Opponents, however, argued the company is not a railroad because it is neither operating a rail system, nor does it own any tracks or trains.

As part of their filing, Beckham listed the dictionary definitions for “railroad” and “operating” among the exhibit he planned to enter. Texas Central’s lawyers opposed those exhibits in a filing Thursday.

Beckham called the hearing significant in a video statement released by Texans Against High-Speed Rail, a group formed to oppose Texas Central’s plans.

“This was the first case where this issue was to be decided,” Beckham said. “We had a complete victory.”

Perhaps, but I doubt any precedents were set since there was no decision rendered. It’s hard to draw any conclusions from this case since the details about it are so sparse, but even if I did know more I’d still rank it no higher than third on the list of existential threats that Texas Central faces, well behind the forthcoming AG opinion on whether it is a “railroad” for the purposes of using eminent domain, and whatever mischief the Legislature will cook up in the next session. On that score, Rep. Ron Simmons (R, Carrolton), who serves as the Chair of the Transportation Subcommittee on Long-term Infrastructure Planning, predicts TCR will survive. I don’t know that I would take that bet, but Rep. Simmons (whose district is in the Dallas suburbs) is in a better position than I to judge.

Abbott says something about high speed rail

Something vague, and a bit confusing.

TexasOklahomaPassengerRailStudyRoutes

Gov. Greg Abbott on Thursday expressed caution about high-speed rail in Texas, warning that any investment in transportation must not be a “money-losing proposition.”

It was one of several notable topics that came up during a wide-ranging Q-and-A with the Greater Waco Chamber of Commerce, where Abbott also vouched for the continuation of the Texas Enterprise Fund and provided a brief preview of the next legislative session.

[…]

Abbott had previously expressed hesitation about high-speed rail, a perennial flashpoint in Texas that sparks debate over how to pay for it and its impact on property rights. He was again somewhat skeptical-sounding Thursday at the luncheon for the Chamber of Commerce, which supports high-speed rail. Waco is along a potential route being studied for a high-speed rail alternative to Interstate 35 that would go from Oklahoma City to Laredo.

“It is important to be able to invest in anything that works, but when you invest, you don’t want to lose money,” Abbott said, bringing up a high-speed rail project in California that ended up costing much more than originally projected. “You’ve got to proceed with caution.”

Abbott instead pointed to the freight shuttle system recently unveiled at Texas A&M University, which would move containers on elevated highways using automated transporters. Abbott noted that the system does not rely on taxpayer dollars and would “not involve taking anyone’s property.”

“You have to look at certain issues so that it works for all the different pieces of all the different constituencies, but most importantly look at at the bottom for the taxpayers in Texas, which is the thing that we have to be the greatest guardian of,” Abbott said.

At first reading, I thought Abbott was speaking of high-speed rail in general, including the Texas Central Railway. That didn’t make much sense, since they’re a private company, and what does he care if they wind up making money or not? He still might have had them in mind when he said this, but at this point I think he was just referring to the Oklahoma/Texas line, which is a TxDOT project. Too bad, because it would be nice to hear what he thinks about Texas Central, given the target it has on its back in the 2017 Legislature. Will he support or undermine the efforts to kill it? Your guess is as good as mine at this point.

As for this project, I think talk about the California HSR experience is premature. I suspect the escalating cost estimates for the California line – which is still in the conceptual stage – have as much to do with the price of real estate as anything else. I’m pretty sure that would be less of an issue with this proposal, but if Abbott wanted to know more about that, he could ask TxDOT to provide him with some answers. And sure, HSR isn’t cheap, but then neither is our road infrastructure cheap to operate, maintain, and especially expand. Building highways also involves a lot of eminent domain, though for some reason the uproar over that is always more muted. You tell me what the difference is, I have no idea.

Land acquisition for the high speed rail line

It’s going great, according to the CEO of Texas Central High Speed Railway.

Realty News Report: When will Texas’ first high-speed passenger railway between Dallas and Houston actually begin service?

Tim B. Keith: We expect to begin construction on the nation’s first truly high-speed train system as early as next year. We expect that construction will last about four years, and that 2022 will be the first full year service.

Realty News Report: Has any land been acquired yet?

Tim B. Keith: Overall, the response to the project’s ongoing work with landowners has been positive. We have recently begun a voluntary land purchase program. As a result of personalized conversations with landowners we are encouraged with the progress. Our conversations with landowners are in various stages of the process, including those who have fully agreed to sell their land.

Realty News Report: There’s a massive amount of right-of-way to be acquired between Houston and Dallas and eminent domain will be employed. Can you please tell us about your plan for undertaking this?

Tim B. Keith: High-speed rail has one of the smallest land footprints per user of any method of transportation. We estimate that the train will operate on a very narrow footprint at approximately 100-150 feet wide in areas where the tracks will run. The project’s land purchase program has recently begun and we are encouraged by its early results. Texas’ Constitution and state statutes have long granted eminent domain authority to railroads such as Texas Central, as well as pipeline companies, electric power companies and other industries. All support the creation of infrastructure necessary to serve the public efficiently and enjoy a healthy economy. The development of a high-speed train that will bring widespread benefits to Texans is built on positive relationships directly with property owners, and any use of this legal authority would be as a last resort. Our goal is to work with landowners and never have to use the court system in this process. With the growth of population over time, high-speed rail is the most efficient way to move the most people using the most efficient amount of land.

The rest is all stuff we know. It’s not surprising to think that some people have been happy to sell to Texas Central. Some others can probably be persuaded, with a third group not being interested at all. For this latter group, Texas Central will need to use eminent domain to get the land they need, but to get to that point they’ll have to survive the 2017 Legislature as well as an AG opinion, either of which could block them. If nothing bad has happened to them in the next ten months or so, they ought to be in great shape. If not, I hope they have a Plan B in place. Link via Swamplot.

Grimes County takes its own steps against Texas Central

Another day, another obstacle.

In a rebuke of a private firm’s plans to build a bullet train between Houston and Dallas, local officials in rural southeastern Texas moved Tuesday to restrict high-speed rail development in their corner of the state.

Grimes County commissioners voted unanimously to require high-speed rail developers to acquire a permit and provide sufficient proof of eminent domain authority before building a rail line over county roads, according to Ben Leman, the Grimes County judge.

[…]

On Tuesday, Texas Central released statements repeating that argument and affirming that “this high-speed rail project will continue, working closely with local governments to make this project a success for each community it will serve.”

“Texas statutes, as interpreted by courts and not county governments, have long granted eminent domain authority to railroads such as Texas Central, pipeline companies, electric power companies and other industries that provide the infrastructure necessary to serve the public efficiently and enjoy a healthy economy,” the company said in a statement.

The statement also criticized the Grimes Commissioners Court decision as “another delaying tactic.”

Leman, who previously filed a petition in opposition to the project, remains skeptical. The local measure will “clarify if they have eminent domain or not,” he said. “They claim to have it, or they publicly say they have it, but they’ve never demonstrated any proof of it in any court or any other entity.”

On the one hand, I understand why rural counties like Grimes hate this project. The trains will just pass through, they’re not getting any benefit from it, and they have no reason to trust any assurances that Texas Central will use eminent domain as little as possible. On the other hand, I want to scream “Will we ever be able to do anything other than build roads in this state?” in frustration. I see this project as being beneficial and necessary for the state, and it will only get more expensive to build the longer we wait. I know, it’s easy for me to say when someone else is being asked to take one for the team, but what do you want from my life?

Anyway. Either Texas Central will survive the various challenges to its ability to use eminent domain or it won’t. In either outcome, Grimes County’s actions here likely won’t matter. It’s just another step in the process.

UPDATE: Here’s a statement from TCR in response to this action, which disputes my claim that Grimes County will not see benefit from the project; they have also published this one-page overview of what Grimes County will get out of the railroad. Finally, here’s their statement on eminent domain.

How about a commuter hyperloop?

This sure sounds interesting.

Navigating right-of-way for land development can be like drawing blood from fiercely independent landowners. But a San Antonio technology startup is banking that it has cracked the code to prying some surface rights from Texans by borrowing a concept familiar to them — royalties, not eminent domain.

Oil and gas companies routinely knock on doors of Texas ranchers and cattle owners to offer mineral royalties in exchange for leasing surface rights to conduct deep drilling operations. But instead of a heavy industry use, these surface rights would be for a clean technology powered bullet train that runs inside an above ground pipeline structure and offer profit dividends.

A bullet train building startup called Transonic Transportation LLC that recently relocated to San Antonio from its roots in Louisiana has its eye on an alternative to the Lone Star Rail project — a commuter train line that would connect downtown San Antonio to the urban core of Austin along the I-35 corridor that’s been abandoned by Union Pacific after a deal fell through.

The startup claims that eminent domain won’t be as much of an issue since the train platform is held up by concrete pylons rather than laid on the earth. So hypothetically, landowners could still have access to travel underneath the tracks, if necessary.

The company plans to use hyperloop technology, a trademark of SpaceX, a research and development firm. Hyperloop refers to a train inside a tube that glides on a magnetized track. But the California tech giant SpaceX, doesn’t have plans to commercialize it.

[…]

The prototype still in design phase could transport between 6,000 and 12,000 passengers per hour and cost between $8 to $12 per trip for consumers.The funding structure would be that of a public-private partnership rather than a bond supported or taxpayer-subsidized effort.

Transonic Transportation’s co-founder, Joshua Manriquez is a civil engineer by training and now has a team working on blueprints and patent pending technology for a Texas hyperloop train system.

Manriquez was part of the Louisiana State University team that made it through the design phase during the competition in early 2016 held by SpaceX. Since then, the startup has secured a 1-mile-long test track in Mississippi and aims to raise roughly $300,000 in a seed funding round within the next year. The company also has a testing facility in San Antonio.

“We’re getting closer to patent a lot of the designs that we have. We’ve been talking to a lot of big companies that are interested in the project but they are saying it’s all going to come down to economics,” Manriquez said in an exclusive interview. “As far as working with Lone Star Rail, it could be a beneficial relationship but that’s going to come down to whether or not they want to pursue anything like that.”

Manriquez said he’s reached out to Lone Star Rail and is waiting for a response but would move forward independently on a Texas hyperloop train system once the funding is secured.

“I have reached out to them about doing a feasibility study funded by TxDOT. There’s a research grant that’s available to transportation studies, but I’ve yet to hear back from them,” he said. “I wouldn’t be surprised if we were sitting down to a set of plans 10 years from now and deciding on a contractor.”

Here’s their website, where they claim the trip time would be 15 minutes. I’ve blogged a few times about hyperloops – see here, here, and here for more on them. The Lone Star Rail proposal to connect Austin and San Antonio may or may not be dead, so if nothing else this is an intriguing possible alternative. It’s also a creative way around the possible eminent domain issues that Texas Central is facing, though there’s no guarantee of that. In any event, I look forward to seeing if this idea gets any traction. Link via Streetsblog, and Texas Monthly has more.

Expect Texas Central to be a target in the Legislature

It’s sure to draw a lot of proposed legislation, now that the Surface Transportation Board (STB) has declined to get involved at this time.

“We were glad the STB ruled as quickly as they did because that allows us to set the path forward and if they had any uncertainty it could have impacted the project’s timeline,” said Holly Reed, Texas Central’s managing director of external affairs. The company expects construction to start in 2017 and rides to start as soon as 2021.

With the Surface Transportation Board’s decision, the extent of the role of the federal government in the Texas project is unclear. The Federal Railroad Administration is still in the midst of an environmental impact study of the project.

“STB oversight has things that are positive and negative for the project based on either direction that it would decide, so getting a timely decision was important,” Reed said.

Even though Reed did not express displeasure with the Transportation Board’s decision, opponents of the project are celebrating it as a victory.

“I have good news for you,” reads a Texans Against High Speed Rail newsletter sent last week. “With the federal government’s ruling that it will not oversee this ill-advised project, Texas Central will now have to come back to Texas to get approval to build its high-speed rail … From our point of view, the best place for the citizens of Texas to be heard is the State Capitol.”

[…]

Many lawmakers who opposed the project last session are pointing to the Transportation Board’s ruling as a reason to feel emboldened about stopping the project dead in its tracks in 2017, even as Texas Central gears up to begin construction.

“The STB clearly made the correct decision on this matter, plainly reinforcing that a project contained wholly within Texas should be under the purview of state legislators and the citizens we represent,” said state Sen. Brian Birdwell, a Republican who represents counties south of Dallas, in a statement. “I consider this issue far from resolved and I reiterate my steadfast opposition to the project — both for individual landowners who will be harmed by it in the short term and for the Texas taxpayers who will likely be asked to subsidize it in the long term.”

State Rep. Will Metcalf, R-Conroe, said he is looking forward to “a robust debate going forward at the state level on the future of Texas Central Railway.”

“Fortunately for landowners and all who value property rights, the Surface Transportation Board made the right decision and declined oversight,” Metcalf said in a statement.

State Sen. Robert Nichols, a Jacksonville Republican who chairs the Senate Transportation Committee, said when the decision was released, “there was joy and celebration in the heartland of Texas,” where he said people don’t want the train. The ruling appears to put the project in limbo, he said.

“I think they are going to have to use eminent domain if they’re going to build it, and I think they know that the status of whether or not they do or don’t have it under current Texas law is a pretty shaky area, it’s not real clear,” said Nichols. “But had the Surface Transportation Board ruled and taken [the project] on, then they clearly under federal law would have the authority to do it.”

Nichols said he expects Texas Central to promote legislation next session that “makes it very clear that they do have the right of eminent domain.”

[…]

Peter LeCody, the president of Texas Rail Advocates, said he expects to see efforts to pass more wide-reaching legislation when the Legislature reconvenes in January.

“I think it’s going to be very contentious going into the legislative session,” LeCody said. “This is definitely probably one of the strongest rural-versus-urban fights we’re going to be seeing for a long time.”

See here for the background. As I said before, while the opponents of Texas Central have (in my estimation) more legislators on their side than its advocates do, they don’t have a majority. The key to this session will be which side can convince enough of the many legislators who have no direct interest in the issue to join them. The lobbyists are going to be busy, that’s for sure.

AG opinion sought on eminent domain power for Texas Central

This could be a big deal.

State Rep. Byron Cook asked Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton on Friday to rule on whether a private company developing a high-speed train project in the state has the power of eminent domain.

Texas Central Partners has been developing a privately funded bullet train intended to travel between Houston and Dallas  in less than 90 minutes. While the project has garnered strong support in those cities, residents in the largely rural communities along the proposed route have voiced opposition. Cook’s request asks Paxton to determine whether the company has the right, under state law, to enter private property to conduct land surveys “and ultimately take” private land.

“This issue is of great importance to Texans, especially rural Texans, whose property is already being entered upon in preparation for the initiation of eminent domain proceedings,” Cook, a Republican from Corsicana, wrote in his request. “The issue upon which I request an opinion in one of statutory interpretation and the rules that govern your response are straightforward.”

There are currently hundreds of private companies afforded eminent domain authority in Texas, including dozens of private railroad companies, according to a list maintained by the state Comptroller.

Railroad companies have eminent domain rights in Texas, and as of today that includes high-speed rail companies, though Sen. Lois Kolkhorst tried to pass a bill last session that would have ended that. It seems likely she or some other legislative opponent of Texas Central will try again next year, but in the meantime Rep. Cook has asserted in his request for an opinion that TCR doesn’t qualify as a railroad company, at least not as intended by the law as originally written. That feels like legal hair-splitting to me, but these things happen when 19th century legislation is applied to 21st century reality. As we know, AG opinions do not carry the force of law, but it would carry some weight in the litigation that would be sure to follow. Keep an eye on this.

The high-speed rail fight has officially shifted to Congress

Nothing like a little eminent domain action to spur some people on.

In the four years Texas Central Railway unveiled plans to link Dallas and Houston with the country’s first bullet train, officials with the private company have talked a lot about how quickly the line will whisk travelers between two of the country’s largest, fastest-growing urban areas, about how darn Texan the early investors are, about the stellar safety record of the Japanese rail technology they’ll be using.

By contrast, the company has talked very little about its planned use of eminent domain, which is the legal term for when a government, or frequently a private company that has the government’s endorsement, takes someone’s land. When the topic has come up, the company has typically responded by stressing its strong preference for negotiating with landowners to find a mutually agreeable price for their land.

The problem with that response is that it fails to acknowledge some fundamental truths about human beings in general and landowners in the rural areas along the bullet train’s proposed route in particular. People, as a rule, don’t like having their property sliced in two by large infrastructure projects. People in places like Ellis and Grimes counties really, really don’t like having their property sliced in two by a private, Japanese-backed venture whose only benefit for them will be the privilege of marveling at the wondrous bullet-train technology as it zooms by atop a 14-foot berm. If the line is ever going to get built, Texas Central will have to use eminent domain against hundreds, maybe thousands, of landowners.

Texas Central now admits as much. In filings last month with the federal Surface Transportation Board, which regulates the operations of the freight and passenger rail market, the company indicated that it’s ready to start acquiring right-of-way for its track.

“In many cases, that involves negotiating agreements with landowners who are willing sellers,” the company wrote. “Texas Central is already beginning those negotiations. Inevitably, however, some landowners along the route will not be willing to sell, or even negotiate. If some of those negotiations reach an impasse, Texas Central plans to use its statutory eminent domain powers to establish the properties’ condemnation value.”

In the weeks since the filling, the Surface Transportation Board has become the site of a pitched battle between Texas Central and its opponents, with powerful surrogates on both sides. Several members of Texas’ congressional delegation, and about a dozen state legislators, have waded into the debate. Congressmen Joe Barton of Ennis and Kevin Bradyof suburban Houston have filed letters opposing Texas Central while Dallas’Eddie Bernice Johnson and Corpus Christi’s Blake Farenthold offering statements of support.

The stakes are high. Texas Central says it needs Surface Transportation Board approval in order to begin using eminent domain under Texas law, an obvious prerequisite for actually building and operating a railroad.That means the Surface Transportation Board represents a regulatory choke point, a rare point where opponents can conceivably derail the project in one fell swoop.

See here for some background. If you look at Rep. Johnson’s letter, you will see that it was also signed by Rep. Gene Green of Houston. No surprise, since urban Democrats have been big supporters of the rail line so far. The surprise was Rep. Farenthold, as his district isn’t in the path of the train and is more rural than urban. Gotta give him credit for that – he didn’t have to get involved, and having at least one Republican in their corner will help TCR make its case. I don’t know what the timeine is for the Surface Transportation Board, but I agree that this is a potential choke point, and it could have a disproportionate effect on the ultimate outcome. I’ll keep an eye on that.

Texas Central Railway gets some initial funding

They’ll need more than this, but it’s a start.

Texas Central Partners, which aims to build a bullet train between Texas’ two biggest cities, announced Wednesday they had raised $75 million in private investments in the company’s first round of fundraising.

That funds are intended to allow the ambitious $10 billion project to move forward from feasibility studies to development planning.

The company also hired a new CEO: Tim Keith, former CEO of RREEF/Deutsche Bank Infrastructure Investments.

“It’s an enormous boost for the project. The first capital to raise is the hardest to raise,” he said in an interview. “It’s a terrific day for me but it’s a historic day for the project and for Houston.”

[…]

The funds will help move to the second phase: development planning. Keith said the $75 million will be used to wrap up the environmental study, work with federal authorities to settle on rules for high-speed rail in Texas, grow the company with key hires, expand its consulting base and sponsor more ridership studies.

[…]

The $75 million raised is more than the company sought for the first round of investments.

While it allows the project to move forward, the funds are small change compared to the final $10 billion price tag. Keith says the rest will come through big private investment from private equity funds, large pension funds and large real estate and asset investors.

“It’s a big project, it’s a big idea, it has a big cost to build, but it will deliver lots of benefits to the state,” Keith said.

Glad to hear it. There’s still a long way to go and a lot of obstacles to clear, however.

Keith and his company have plenty of obstacles to overcome before the project becomes a reality. State and federal authorities are still evaluating the line. And organized opposition from rural Texans who farm and live in the large expanse between Dallas and Houston that nearly derailed the project during this year’s legislative session has not died down.

Many landowners oppose the fact that Texas Central is allowed to use eminent domain for the project. Company officials say they plan to work with residents and will only use eminent domain as a last resort, when a land deal simply can’t be reached.

But Kyle Workman, president of Texans Against High Speed Rail, said that eminent domain will have to be used in most cases.

“Because nobody wants to sell their land,” he said.

Remember, the opponents are still organizing even with the Lege not in session. TCR is going to need to make all the gains it can before 2017, to make it that much harder to put up obstacles for them. We’ll see how far this takes them.

Senate bill to kill high speed rail advances

Didn’t know there was one of these.

The Senate Transportation Committee voted 5-4 to pass out Senate Bill 1601, from state Sen. Lois Kolkhorst, R-Brenham, which would strip firms developing high-speed rail projects from eminent domain authority.

Texas Central High-Speed Railway is developing a privately financed bullet train to carry passengers between Houston and Dallas in less than 90 minutes, with a single stop in between near College Station. The company has said it hopes to have the train running by 2021 and has vowed to not take any public subsidies. While the project has drawn strong support in Houston and Dallas, officials in the largely rural communities along the proposed route have expressed opposition.

Kolkhorst said Wednesday that she didn’t want to see private landowners lose their land for a project that she believed is likely to fail.

“While I think in some countries it has worked, I don’t see a whole lot of high-speed rail across the United States,” Kolkhorst said. “I just don’t see it, and I’m not sure I want Texas to be the guinea pig on this.”

Four Republicans joined Kolkhorst in voting for the bill: Transportation Chairman Robert Nichols of Jacksonville, Troy Fraser of Horseshoe Bay, Kelly Hancock of North Richland Hills and Bob Hall of Edgewood. Voting against the bill were two Houston Democrats, Rodney Ellis and Sylvia Garcia, and two North Texas Republicans, Don Huffines of Dallas and Van Taylor of Plano.

[…]

Texas Central Chairman and CEO Richard Lawless told the committee he felt his company was being unfairly singled out.

“All that we ask that this train be treated like any other private train in Texas,” Lawless said. “It does not seem fair to us that this train should be prohibited in Texas just because it goes faster than other trains.”

Those informational meetings sure look like a necessary idea. I noted a bill filed in the House that would have required each city and county along the route to approve the idea. Maybe that was overkill, as that bill has not been scheduled to be heard in committee as yet. What’s most interesting here is that the vote against it was bipartisan, with two Metroplex-area Senators not joining with their mostly rural colleagues (Kelly Hancock being the exception) on this. That suggests to me that this bill might have a hard time coming to the floor, or even getting a majority. If that’s the case, I’m okay with that. Hair Balls has more.

Texas Central Railway to hold “informational” meetings

I hope this effort isn’t too little, too late for them.

Backers of a high-speed rail line plan a series of meetings this month in rural areas where the proposed Houston-to-Dallas tracks could cross, setting up discussions with some of the project’s biggest skeptics.

“What we were surprised at is the amount of misinformation out there,” said Richard Lawless, chairman and CEO of Texas Central High-Speed Railway.

The company on Friday announced a dozen meetings between April 9 and April 24 in places where the rail system could be located. The meetings are unrelated to previous ones hosted by the Federal Railroad Administration, which must approve the location and design of any passenger rail service.

[…]

Waller, Grimes, Leon, Navarro and Madison counties have passed resolutions opposing the project, with many local officials saying the company has evaded some questions and failed to provide enough details to help people make an informed decision. State lawmakers have filed bills that would limit the company’s ability to acquire land via eminent domain, should that be necessary.

“We need more roads for citizens to travel to ease our existing roadways. We do not need a High Speed Railway in Texas that will only benefit a few, while at the same time disturbing thousands of citizens,” said Rep. Will Metcalf, R-Conroe, in a statement announcing his legislation in February.

Lawless said he understood some of the frustrations. The upcoming meetings, he said, will give people a chance to see what sort of system the company wants to build.

“What we’re trying to do is get at those issues with facts,” Lawless said. “The idea is to show people what (the system) looks like, to show them this is what we mean when we say, ‘no at-grade crossings.’ ”

See here, here, and here for some background on the rural opposition to the TCR proposal. Rep. Metcalf is the author of the bill that would effectively kill the rail line. It was referred to the House Transportation Committee on March 11, and as far as I can tell has not yet been scheduled for a hearing. I get the concerns that rural communities have about this, but anyone who thinks we can build enough roads to ease our existing roadways doesn’t understand what urban and suburban Texas is like these days. One way or another we are going to need alternatives to that model.

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.

Endorsement watch: When nothing is something

The Texas Farm Bureau endorses no one in the Governor’s race.

The Texas Farm Bureau, which has feuded with Rick Perry over toll roads and private-property rights, opted Wednesday not to endorse anybody in the governor’s race.

The decision was the first time the Farm Bureau’s political committee has not backed the Republican nominee for governor since it began making endorsements in 1990.

Spokesman Gene Hall said the bureau’s Friends of Agriculture Fund voted to stay neutral.

Democrat Bill White’s campaign hailed the decision as a victory.

“Bill White is committed to private property rights, while Perry’s spent years obsessed with the corrupt land grab of the Trans-Texas Corridor,” said spokeswoman Katy Bacon.

I figure stuff like this is the result of Perry’s “screw everybody except the base” strategy. I mean, it should be a no-brainer for him to get the Farm Bureau endorsement. Other than the occasional conservative, ag-friendly, incumbent Democrat, they endorse Republicans. Sure, they had a falling out with Perry over eminent domain in 2007 and the TTC before that, but they still have a lot in common, and there’s no reason why Perry couldn’t have found some way to win them back. You have to wonder how many people Perry can kick out of his circle before his circle becomes too small for him to win. He seems determined to find out, that’s for sure.

Endorsement watch: Takings

The Chron endorses Prop 11, which is the constitutional amendment to limit eminent domain takings that were allowed by the Supreme Court’s 2005 Kelo ruling.

[It] would prohibit “the taking, damaging, or destroying of private property” for purposes of economic development. The Houston Chronicle urges a vote for Proposition 11.

It was for good reason that the high court ruling in Kelo v. City of New London alarmed many property rights advocates here and elsewhere. It upheld the taking by right of eminent domain of private residences by the Connecticut city for purposes of economic development and expanding the tax base. Proposition 11 would prevent takings of property for either of those reasons.

Preventing takings for economic motives is consistent with Texans’ historically strong support for property rights. At the same time, it would not impede eminent domain takings for necessary purposes.

In situations where economic development is the objective it is simple fairness to give property owners the benefits of choice, and of a marketplace sale. To force a sale upon them under such inflexible circumstances is inimical to constitutional principles enumerated in the takings clause.

Opponents contend a constitutional amendment is unnecessary and that the state courts should be allowed to clear up any potential problems in Texas. Maybe so, but that is no match for the carved-in-stone finality of an amendment.

Maybe it’s just my distrust of anything pushed by Rick Perry, but I’m not sold on Prop 11. I fear that this amendment will be interpreted too broadly, and since it’s an amendment it’d be near impossible to fix. But maybe I’m just being paranoid. Can anyone convince me one way or the other on this?

In other constitutional amendment news, Land Commissioner Jerry Patterson wrote an op-ed in favor of Prop 9, and in the interest of equal time sent it out with an opposing argument, which was written Pacific Legal Foundation attorney J. David Breemer. You can read Patterson’s piece here, and Breemer’s piece, which is more about the Open Beaches act in general and not specifically about Prop 9, though if you agree with his position you’d certainly vote against it, here.

Westpark zealots try to pull a fast one

Just yesterday, the Chron wrote an editorial about how everything was coming up roses and daffodils for Metro lately, thanks to some federal funding (with more in the pipeline) for the light rail expansion and a generally favorable political climate. So naturally, what do we see today but this article about a sneak attack in the Lege on the Universities line.

The proposal, which still faces an uphill battle in the final days of the legislative session, was quietly attached last week to a loosely related bill by House lawmakers.

“It effectively kills the light rail program,” said George Smalley, Metro’s vice president for communications and marketing.

The new restrictions, if enacted, would limit the agency’s eminent domain authority, needed to buy property for the rail lines, if a route differs from the 2003 referendum that authorized the light rail program.

The restrictions mirror the rhetoric of rail critics, who say the location of the controversial University Line down Richmond and Westpark doesn’t conform to the referendum.

“If you lose a line like the University Line because you lost the power of condemnation, then the whole thing is at grave risk,” Smalley said.

[…]

State Rep. Joe Pickett, who chairs the House Transportation Committee, said he added the new restrictions at the request of rail critics by amending another bill, which regulated fare enforcement by mass transit agencies.

The El Paso Democrat said they convinced him that the transit agency hadn’t complied with the referendum. He said he hadn’t talked with the agency, though, before adding the language.

At issue is whether it’s lawful to build a line partially on Richmond when the ballot described it as being on Westpark.

The agency says the largest share of the line would, in fact, be on Westpark, adding that the ballot referred to a general location, the details of which should be based on federally required cost and ridership studies. Those indicate that a segment should be on Richmond.

Pickett said he is open to changing the language.

“If … they intend to meet their promise that they made, then they shouldn’t have a problem,” he said. “It was pretty clear that there was a referendum that did state where (the line) was going, and we were just asked to ratify that.” The legislation came to light just as agency officials were hopeful that, after years of debate and uncertainty, they would have the funding and political support to move forward.

So once again, the people who lost the election and whose lawsuit is currently going nowhere have shown that they will do anything to overturn the will of the people and stop light rail in Houston. I’m amazed that they were able to influence Rep. Pickett, and appalled that he couldn’t have been bothered to at least ask Metro for a response. I’m sorry, but that’s just ignorant. Clearly, Rep. Pickett needs to hear from some people who are not anti-Metro crusaders. Feel free to give his office a call and tell him – politely! – that you support light rail in Houston, that you support Metro’s current expansion plans as they now stand, and that you oppose any effort by the Legislature to affect those plans. His Austin office number is (512) 463-0596 and his district office number is (915) 590-4349. If you do make a call, leave a comment here and tell us what kind of response you got. Thanks very much.

The bill in question is SB1263. Here’s the committee substitute version of the bill. The relevant text is the underlined section that begins “This subsection applies only to an authority created under Chapter 451, Transportation Code, that operates in an area in which the principal municipality has a population of 1.9 million or more.” You could mention that you oppose this amendment that’s been added to the committee substitute version of SB1263 when you call Pickett’s office.

By the way, there’s a real irony here in a sneak attack, made behind closed doors with no public input or notice, on an agency that’s often criticized for not operating in a transparent manner. I daresay some of the people who are behind this covert operation have been quoted in the Chronicle at one time or another berating Metro for not being more open about what it’s doing. And yet here they are, skulking through a back door, without the rest of us even having any idea who’s behind it. Way to go, y’all.

The good news is that Houston lawmakers are not going to take this lying down.

The bill had been planned for a local and consent calendar reserved for non-controversial or limited measures that draw little debate, perhaps on Wednesday. But the controversy appeared likely to force the measure to be considered like any other complex legislation.

With only a week left in the session, and with hundreds of bills in line for consideration, the bill might never get a vote.

Several lawmakers have also said they would fight any attempt to tie the agency’s hands.
“I’ve got my eye on it,” said state Rep. Wayne Smith, R-Baytown, who predicted that the bill wouldn’t survive in its current form.

State Sen. John Whitmire, D-Houston, also planned to investigate the issue, saying that prohibiting the agency’s eminent domain powers “would prevent the common good.”

“I’ll get after it with all my might,” he said. “I’m a great supporter. Rail is a vital component of our future and our transportation system.”

That’s nice to hear. It would also be a good idea to call your own Rep and Senator and tell them you oppose Pickett’s amendment that removes Metro’s eminent domain power in the committee substitute for SB1263. Especially with all that’s going on right now in the House, let’s take nothing for granted.