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Grimes County

Texas Central picks its midway stop

Hello, Roans Prairie.

A proposed high-speed train between Houston and Dallas on Thursday announced its midpoint, even as common ground with opponents near the proposed Roans Prairie stop remains elusive.

Texas Central, the company proposing the Texas Bullet Train, said the only stop between Houston and Dallas will occur at a 60-acre site along Texas 30, just west of Texas 90. The spot is about midway between College Station and Huntsville, officials said.

The announcement comes 10 days before a round of meetings to discuss the project, coordinated by the Federal Railroad Administration, following the release in December of an environmental assessment of the train line. The federal agency must still approve plans for the project, estimated to cost at least $12 billion. Public meetings start Jan. 29 in Dallas and move south. A meeting in Houston is planned Feb. 5.

[…]

The so-called Brazos Valley stop acts as the only other place people can hop aboard.

“This will drive growth in Texas not only to the big cities but also to the areas around the station. It’s going to be very exciting,” said Brady Redwine, a vice president of Texas Central, in a statement.

Grimes County residents, however, have been some of the staunchest critics of the project, which has faced stiff opposition from affected landowners and many rural residents who say the line is unnecessary and ruinous to their rustic surroundings.

Roans Prairie is in fact in Grimes County. One way of looking at this is that it’s a direct response by Texas Central to the criticism that the rural areas between Houston and Dallas where some land will need to be taken for the right of way will see no benefit from the train line. If this goes as planned, then one of the hotbeds of such criticism will in fact get something potentially quite substantial out of this. That could be quite the construction project, on that large tract of basically empty land. Put in the station, some retail, a place to eat, shuttle service to College Station and Huntsville and maybe one or two other places, and now you’ve got a lively enterprise in the middle of what was once nowhere. Will it change any minds? Can’t hurt to try.

High speed rail line route finalist chosen

Here’d where the Texas Central rail route will be, modulo some possible final tweaks and any further political obstacles.

Federal officials narrowed the possible paths for a Dallas-Houston bullet train down to one likely route Friday, providing an unknown number of rural Texans the most definitive answer so far as to whether their land will be in the path of the controversial project.

Much of the planned route had already been largely solidified. But documents released Friday by the Federal Railroad Administration filled in the rest of the gaps, favoring a more westerly route that runs through Navarro, Freestone, Leon, Madison and Limestone counties. Another potential route that was dropped from consideration would have avoided Limestone County.

[…]

The release of the draft Friday marked a major step toward getting federal clearance for the project. While it provides a clearer picture of the expected route, the path could slightly change in some areas as development and federal oversight continues.

The study also provided new details about stations planned in Grimes County and Houston. The Grimes County station is planned for State Highway 30 between Huntsville and College Station. There are three potential Houston station locations: land where Northwest Mall currently sits, an industrial area across from that shopping center and an industrial area closer to the nearby Northwest Transit Center.

The planned Dallas station remains just south of downtown.

The report is here. The original report, which listed six possible routes, came out two years ago – the environmental review process is not intended to be quick, but to be thorough. The station in Grimes County is intended to serve the Bryan/College Station area; the Texas Central summary of the report notes that “direct shuttle service to Texas A&M University” will be included, so you Aggie fans might make note of that. What I notice is that the route avoids Montgomery County, where a lot of the opposition to the line was based. Maybe some of those folks will lose interest now that they’re not in consideration any more. Grimes County, where the midpoint station will be located, is also a hotbed of resistance to TCR; Ben Leman, chair of Texans Against High-Speed Rail, just stepped down as Grimes County Judge to run for the Lege. If all goes well for TCR, they’ll have construction going before the next Lege gavels in.

Anyway. This is a big step forward for Texas Central. There’s still a 60-day public feedback period, and then the final route will be determined. Both DART and Metro will need to make some decisions about how they will connect to the terminals, and the Houston end has to be chosen. But we’re getting close. With a bit of luck, by this time next year we’ll have had a groundbreaking. I’m looking forward to it. 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.

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.

Disaster declaration made

From the inbox:

HoustonSeal

Texas Governor Greg Abbott’s office today confirmed that President Obama has approved the governor’s request for a federal disaster declaration for Fayette, Grimes, Harris and Parker counties. The action paves the way for federal recovery assistance to begin flowing into the Houston area.

“I hope this leads to help for all of our residents who were impacted by the flooding, including our most vulnerable residents in the 17 apartment complexes in the Greenspoint area,” said Mayor Sylvester Turner. “Many of these families have lost everything and they do not have the financial means to recover. They have a whole host of needs that include housing, transportation and more. I urge the Federal Emergency Management Agency to be flexible in its decision making regarding assistance for these residents.”

More than 1900 apartment units were damaged in the 17 complexes in Greenspoint. Approximately 200 of these units took in as much as six feet of water. In addition, hundreds of single-family homes in Houston along White Oak and Brays Bayous also suffered extensive damage.

Houston residents and business owners who sustained losses in Harris County can apply for assistance by registering online at www.DisasterAssistance.gov, calling 1-800-621-FEMA (3362), or by a web enabled mobile device at m.fema.gov.

The City of Houston has established a website to help residents navigate the disaster recovery process, which includes the latest information from FEMA, as well as ways to receive and give help following the flooding. Visit houstonrecovers.org for more information.

Here’s the Chron story. If you or someone you know has been affected by this flood, do be sure you get the help you need.

Also of interest for county residents:

The Harris County engineering department has opened a phone line for residents seeking information on permits and inspections they may need to rebuild flood-damaged homes.

Residents can call 713-274-3880 from 7 a.m. until 10 p.m. daily.

Depending on where residents live and the type of structural repair necessary, they might need an inspection and development permit from the county. County officials are encouraging people to call the number to sort out what steps they need to take.

Again, please get all the help you need, and take all necessary steps to protect yourself from unscrupulous operators who would try to cheat or deceive you in making repairs.

The economic impact of the high speed rail line

It could be a lot, if one study is to be believed.

An analysis of a planned high-speed line between Houston and Dallas shows the $10 billion-plus project will have an economic impact roughly three times its expected price tag, though critics contend that estimate ignores many costs rural residents will pay, if the line is ever built.

The economic impact report, commissioned by the firm planning a high-speed train between Houston and Dallas, estimates the 240-mile line would have a $36.3 billion impact on Texas over the next 25 years. The analysis, by Allen-based Insight Research Corp., was commissioned by Texas Central Partners, which summarized its findings on Thursday.

Texas Central CEO Tim Keith said the economic analysis – one of many the company is preparing as part of its federal review and the process of selling communities on the line – supports the benefits the company has claimed.

“The overall message here is we are on a path to keep our development pace moving quickly,” Keith said.

The company plans to begin construction in 2017, and start ferrying passengers in 2021. Officials on Thursday also confirmed they plan a stop between the two sprawling metro areas aimed at potential Bryan-College Station riders. That station would be located in Grimes County, one of the counties where the bullet train has faced the stiffest opposition.

[…]

“One of the questions that’s been asked is ‘what does this do for me?” Keith said, noting the push back the project has received.

Grimes County, for example, would receive an estimated $50 million – five times the county’s fiscal 2016 property tax collections – while the local school district would receive more. Across Texas, the project would create about $3.1 billion in tax revenue between now and 2040, including $2.5 billion directly from construction of the line.

What’s unclear is whether those communities consider any economic gain something to celebrate.

“Their private property rights are not for sale,” said Kyle Workman, president of Texans Against High-Speed Rail, which formed to oppose the current plan. “That is not something they look forward to. If they wanted a lot of development they would move to Houston.”

Workman said the economic impact included many details officials already have hinted at. He called some of the pronouncements speculative until the public had a chance to examine the complete economic analysis.

“Their whole economic analysis is based on a successful project,” he said, noting success is not assured with airline travel popular between the metro areas and people likely preferring to drive.

Well, sure, I mean, who studies the potential impact of a failed project? It’s called “potential impact” precisely because you’re assuming it will be successful, not because you know it will be. You can find the study and the associated press release from Texas Central here. Of interest to me is that there will be a station added in Grimes County, home of some fierce opposition as well as proximity to Bryan/College Station. Will that dampen any of the opposition? Will the addition of an in-between station change anything about the viability of the route? In an alternate universe, we could be talking about a station in The Woodlands, which might have been more appealing to Texas Central and its potential riders. I look forward to seeing what comes next. The Trib, the Highwayman, and Dallas Transportation have 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.

Early voting for special election runoffs has begun

EarlyVoting

It began yesterday, but I forgot to queue up a post in time to mention it. Here’s some relevant information for those of you who need to get out and vote in one or more of these runoffs.

For SD26 and HD123, here are the Bexar County early voting locations. The Bexar County Elections page is here as well.

For HD17, here are the early voting locations for Bastrop County, Caldwell County, and Lee County. The Bastrop County Elections page is here, and they already have Election Day voting locations up as well. Both the Caldwell and Lee pages have early voting and election day locations. As for Karnes County and Gonzales County, you’ll need to call the elections administrators for information, as you had to do for the January election.

For HD13, here are the early voting locations for Burleson County, Colorado County, Fayette County, Grimes County, Lavaca County, and Washington County. All of those pages also have Election Day locations, except for Fayette and Washington. I could not find information for Austin County, so call the elections administrator there for the scoop.

Googling around on the candidates’ names, I found basically zero new information since the original election, except for a couple of stories relating to the SD26 runoff. The only endorsements I found, as was the case in January, was from the Express News, which reiterated their choices from the first round.

In the Senate race, we recommend Rep. Trey Martinez Fischer to replace mayoral candidate Leticia Van de Putte.

The district will be in good hands regardless of who wins the showdown between Martinez Fischer and Rep. José Menéndez. Both Democrats who have been in the House since 2001.

But Martinez Fischer’s strong leadership ability unequivocally makes him the right choice for the Senate.

[…]

We strongly encourage voters to cast their ballots for former City Councilman Diego Bernal, who faces Republican Nunzio Previtera.

Bernal represented San Antonio’s City Council District 1 from 2011 until resigning late last year to seek the House seat. During his tenure at City Hall, Bernal showed courage by successfully sponsoring a highly controversial nondiscrimination ordinance that provided new protections for sexual orientation, gender identity and veteran status.

The 38-year-old Bernal also played a lead role in creating an advisory panel to study the future of Alamo Plaza. The city has failed to nurture the downtown asset, and Bernal’s efforts have revived hope for real improvements. This is an issue of statewide importance.

They also had a recent story about how Bexar Dems are dismayed by the negativity in the all-Dem SD26 runoff. Those of us who remember the SD06 special election from two years ago feel their pain. I figure turnout will be less than or equal to the first round, so if you live in any of these districts, your vote counts for a lot. There are no Dems in either HD17 or HD13, but John Cyrier and Carolyn Bilski are backed by the Texas Parent PAC, and Cyrier’s opponent in particular is aligned with the likes of Empower Texans, so even without a home team there’s still a rooting interest. I’ll keep an eye on the voting as we go. The Rivard Report has more.

Rural counties skeptical of high speed rail plan

This is a bit concerning.

Steve Drake regularly makes the nearly four-hour drive from this city to Houston to visit his fiancée’s family. So he was excited about the news that a private company intended to build a bullet train that would cut that trip to 90 minutes.

“I’m passionate about this. I hope it happens,” Drake said at a recent public meeting. “I don’t want to be driving to Houston for the next 30 years.”

Drake’s sentiment echoed that of others at the first of six meetings held as part of the Federal Railroad Administration’s environmental impact study into Texas Central Railway’s proposed bullet train. The project has also drawn strong support from officials at the other end of the project in Houston.

Yet the reception has been less rosy from rural communities that will be on or near a possible train route. Officials and residents have expressed concern about the noise from trains whizzing past their quiet towns dozens of times a day and about a track dividing farmland and reducing property values.

“I haven’t heard anything positive about it whatsoever,” said Byron Ryder, the county judge in Leon County, which is about halfway between Dallas and Houston. “I’ve talked to other judges and commissioners up and down the line, landowners up and down the line. No one wants it.”

I was a little surprised to read this, as I know from previous communications with Texas Central Railway that they have been doing outreach in the rural communities along I-45. It may be the case that the communities weren’t really paying much attention before – we’ve only been talking about high speed rail in Texas for what, 30 year now? – and thought this was just another piece of pie in the sky. With the Environmental Impact Statement process going on, however, now it’s getting real, and people may be reacting more strongly as a result. In addition, it’s not that long ago that these folks were hearing about a network of privately built and managed toll roads that would be going through rural counties, with little apparent benefit to them. One can imagine why they might have some doubts here. Obviously, I think this is a project that’s worth doing, and I hope these communities can be persuaded there’s something in it for them, or at least that they won’t be harmed. Clearly, TCR has some work to do.

In Grimes County, where the two routes take different paths, Betty Shiflett, the county judge, said many residents felt they did not have enough information to develop an opinion. One factor that would weigh heavily, she said, was whether Texas Central Railway followed through on plans to build a station in Grimes County to allow the bullet train to serve nearby College Station.

“I think people would be a lot more enthusiastic because they would probably take it,” Shiflett said. “I know I would, definitely.”

I’m sure they would. I seriously doubt there would be a station anywhere except Houston and Dallas (and maybe The Woodlands) when it debuts in 2021, assuming all goes well. Stations cost money, and they mean slower overall travel times. Maybe at some point down the line, but not any time soon. Of course, you do have to build the line now to have any hope for one in the future, whenever that may be. It’s your call, Grimes County.

Seliger-Solomons 2.0

Go to http://gis1.tlc.state.tx.us and have a gander at Plan C130 to see the version of the Seliger-Solomons Congressional plan that was passed last night by the Senate redistricting committee. The biggest changes are in and around Harris County, mostly due to CD36, which Rep. Solomons had admitted was ridiculous. Gone is its bizarre shape, which had been described by me and others as “the Gateway Arch”, a “horseshoe”, and a “Gulf shrimp”, which is my favorite. Here’s a before and after look for comparison. First, the original, Plan C125:

What once was

And here’s Plan C130:

What now is

CD36 loses all of its western turf and takes in territory that had originally been drawn into CDs 01, 02, 08, and 14. While it can now be more accurately described as an East Texas district, it still takes a chunk of Harris County, which I daresay will remain the population center for it. I don’t know if this is more of what State Rep. James White had in mind when he complained about the original CD36, but if it’s not I don’t know that he’s going to get what he wants. East Texas didn’t gain population in the past decade, the Houston area – Montgomery, Fort Bend, Brazoria, and Harris – did. One way or another they’re going to get yoked to this area. This is probably about as good as it’s going to get for them.

The folks in SN22 no longer have to be worried about being represented by someone from 200 miles away, but in return they get stuck with Ted Poe, whose CD02 is now entirely within Harris. CD08 takes most of the non-Harris portions of what had been the west and north ends of the CD36 arch – Grimes, Madison, Houston, and Trinity counties – while CD10 takes the piece of Washington county and the rest of Harris that didn’t go to CD02. Angelina County is reclaimed by CD01. CD22 gives up much of its east Harris turf and picks up more of Brazoria. The Brazoria bit came from CD14, which loses Chambers and picks up the rest of Jefferson.

There are some minor changes elsewhere in the map, which Greg discusses. He also disagrees with the contention made in the Trib that the changes to CD14 target Ron Paul. While I’ve long held the crackpot belief that this next round of redistricting would do Paul no favors, I also don’t think this is much of a threat to him. His district has been changed more significantly in the past, and it didn’t stop him. Short of eliminating his district altogether, I daresay he’ll keep on keeping on. According to this interactive Trib map, the redrawn CD14 is less red by a few points, but still pretty red and encompassing counties that are going the wrong way from my perspective. Paul has no real reason to lose any sleep.

Anyway, this is what we’ve got for now. Most of what will happen between now and the eventual adoption of a map is aimed at the lawyers, since there clearly isn’t going to be much public input allowed. See Greg‘s liveblogging of the Senate committee hearing, the Trib, and Texas on the Potomac for more. Finally, while I doubt it will be considered during this session, State Sen. Jose Rodriguez sent out this press release about “legislation which would establish new guidelines for the process of redrawing congressional district lines.” It doesn’t create a non-partisan commission for this purpose as Sen. Jeff Wentworth’s biennial bill would, but it does require that districts “not be drawn based on partisan data nor with int ent to favor or disfavor any individual or organized group”. The bill is SB32 if you want to have a look.