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No Texas Central

Profiling the high speed rail opponents

City Lab takes a look at the people who are resisting the proposed Texas Central Railway.

Turns out you don’t need to rely on public money to be hated as a U.S. high-speed rail project. That much is becoming clear from the battering being given to a big Texas bullet train plan that’s privately funded.

A quick recap: Texas Central Railway, a private firm, is pushing a very promising proposal to link Dallas and Houston with a Japanese-style high-speed train capable of doing the trip at 200 mph. By relying on investors rather than taxpayers, the plan seemed poised to avoid a lot of the fiscal (slash ideological) squabbles that have plagued its federally-funded counterparts in California, Florida, Ohio, and Wisconsin.

But with the project advancing toward route selection and environmental review, an intense opposition has emerged. It’s taken the form of anti-HSR groups (e.g. No Texas Central and Texans Against High Speed Rail), local legislation designed to stop the project, packed and panicked community meetings, and pleas for Congressional representatives to block any applications made by Texas Central to the Surface Transportation Board.

So far the high-speed rail pushback seems to be falling into three broad categories.

Click over and see how they were categorized. Nothing really new here, but it’s a succinct summary and a good quick reference guide if you need it.

Speaking of the legislation that has advanced out of committee, the Trib notes that its author, Sen. Lois Kolkhorst, hasn’t always been anti-rail.

Yet as recently as 2012, Kolkhorst was listed as a member of the legislative caucus of the Texas High Speed Rail and Transportation Corporation, a nonprofit that has advocated on behalf of cities and counties to encourage private sector development of high-speed rail in the state.

Kolkhorst’s chief of staff, Chris Steinbach, said there was no contradiction in her actions, as she is not uniformly opposed to high-speed rail.

“While she was involved with discussions about high-speed rail as a concept years ago, that is very different from endorsing the current specific route and methodology,” Steinbach said in an email. “In fact, her bill this session does not speak to the concept of rail, but rather the potential abuse of eminent domain.”

Kolkhorst was a state representative from 2001 to 2014, when she won a special election to take a seat in the Senate. The Dallas-based Texas High Speed Rail and Transportation Corporation identified Kolkhorst as a new member of its legislative caucus in 2007. Steinbach said the senator joined the corporation at the request of some of her constituents. She has not been a member of the organization’s legislative caucus as a senator.

“She lent her name as a goodwill gesture for constituents who supported the idea of researching rail projects,” Steinbach said. “While she is she known for her open-minded approach to problems, that trait should not be mistaken for any advocacy or endorsement of the current high-speed rail project being discussed in the 84th Legislature.”

The Texas High-Speed Rail and Transportation Corporation launched in 2002 with a focus on encouraging private sector development of the Texas T-Bone, a proposed high-speed rail system connecting San Antonio, Austin, Houston and Dallas-Fort Worth, according to David Dean, the corporation’s public policy consultant. The corporation has more recently encouraged private sector high-speed rail development anywhere in the state but is not officially endorsing Texas Central’s project, Dean said.

“We’re glad they’re here,” Dean said. “We hope they’re very successful because we need that true high-speed intercity passenger rail.”

Whatever. Look, people can change their minds, and they can decide that this project is OK but that one is not. As I’ve said before, there are valid reasons for folks in the affected rural reasons to oppose this project. But if this does succeed – and to be clear, I remain in favor of it – then perhaps that also-long-discussed Texas T-Bone would be more likely to finally get built, and it might very well be the kind of boon to the rural communities that TCR will be for Houston and Dallas. A little big-picture thinking would be nice here, that’s all I’m saying.

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.

Bill filed to kill high speed rail line

Given all that’s been going on lately, I suppose this was inevitable.

A lawmaker whose district sits near the proposed route for a planned bullet train connecting Houston and Dallas filed a bill Wednesday that could stop the project in its tracks.

House Bill 1889 from state Rep. Will Metcalf, R-Conroe, a persistent critic of the plan, would require the elected officials of every city and county along the route to approve the project. That seems improbable, given the opposition in some rural areas.

[…]

While officials in Houston and Dallas have championed the project, officials and residents in rural communities in between have questioned how it would benefit them.

“Numerous county officials have come out in opposition to the Texas Central Railway and their use of eminent domain,” Metcalf wrote Wednesday on Facebook. “This bill would help give more local control and would let individual counties decide what is best for them.”

Metcalf has been an outspoken critic of the project, which at one point had the potential to go through his district in Montgomery County. Earlier this month, Texas Central revealed its preferred route, which would completely bypass Montgomery County. Metcalf said in a statement at the time that the route did not dampen his desire to see the project stopped.

“We need more roads for citizens to travel to ease our existing roadways,” Metcalf said. “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 within its path.”

See here and here for some background. I don’t suppose it’s occurred to Rep. Metcalf that at least some of the train’s passengers – and it can’t be that few if the investors in TCR are correct about their ability to sell enough tickets to make money on it – would be contributing to the traffic he wants to ease if they didn’t have that alternate option. Be that as it may, it’s more than a little rich to hear any Republican legislator wax poetic about the virtues of local control. There’s a long list of things that legislators like Rep. Metcalf don’t want cities and counties to have any control over, but apparently this isn’t one of them. Go figure. Looks like Robert Eckels will have his work cut out for him convincing his erstwhile allies to not kneecap his latest project. We’ll see how much luck he has with that. Hair Balls has more.

(On a side note, there’s another opposition group out there now, with a distinctly tea partyish cast to them. More work for you there, Judge Eckels.)

Texas Central chooses a corridor

We have a single preferred route for the Houston to Dallas high speed rail line.

Texas Central High-Speed Railway (TCR) today informed the Federal Railroad Administration (FRA) that it recommends narrowing the consideration of potential high-speed rail corridors between Houston and Dallas to a single preferred corridor known generally as the Utility Corridor. TCR has concluded the Utility Corridor is best suited to satisfy the goals of the project to provide reliable, safe and economically viable high-speed rail service between Dallas and Houston using the N700-I Bullet System technology.

TCR has spent several years identifying potential corridors for high-speed rail service between Dallas and Houston. To that end, TCR expended significant effort looking for solutions to engineering, construction and economic challenges associated with building high-speed rail in or along the existing Freight Corridor, and believes the Utility Corridor to be the superior alternative. Additionally, as TCR examines the various alternative alignments, one of the company’s goals is to reduce the project’s impact on communities and landowners to the extent practicable by using existing rights of way. TCR will recommend inclusion of an alternative involving the I-10 corridor as a potential approach to downtown Houston and looks forward to working with the City of Houston to evaluate this option.

TCR will now focus on potential alternatives keyed to the Utility Corridor that meet the business, environmental and connectivity priorities of the project and will submit additional information to the FRA for further detailed analysis during subsequent phases of the environmental review process.

As the Dallas Transportation Blog notes, that’s the orange line on the embedded map. The TCR announcement page also has some quotes from Houston-area elected officials, including Mayor Parker, lauding the inclusion of a possible I-10 corridor approach to downtown. That may make some critics here a bit happier, as they had been agitating for TCR to not run through Inner Loop neighborhoods – see this press release I got from the Oak Forest Homeowners Association the other day for an example – though it won’t do anything to deter the more organized opponents; see this post on the No Texas Central Facebook page to see an example of that. If nothing else, this would seem to ensure that there’s no Woodlands station in the cards, not that this was likely once Montgomery County got on board with the opposition. Whether this blunts the resistance or fires it up more remains to be seen.

The Chron fills in some details.

The preferred route would use land along the BNSF right of way parallel to Hempstead Highway, turning near Loop 610 and U.S. 290.

From there, Texas Central is changing its focus to an alignment through commercial areas around U.S. 290 and Loop 610. Elevated tracks would run along Interstate 10 to access downtown, said Robert Eckels, a former Harris County judge and president of Texas Central.

“That would take us out of the residential areas, so we are going to seriously look at that as an option,” Eckels said.

Originally, the proposal followed Union Pacific tracks along Washington into downtown Houston.

[…]

Eckels said officials are working on all of the concerns, hoping to avoid as many as possible.

“There is still a process you go through with the FRA,” he said. “We are trying to respond to the comments we have received.”

A draft environmental analysis, expected to be distributed publicly later this year, will have much more detail on the exact route. Eckels said many changes remain likely.

“Not everyone is going to be happy, but we can address many of the concerns,” he said.

Texas Central remains focused on bringing the trains downtown, if possible, and not stopping short of the central business district, Eckels said.

For a better view of what this might look like for the Houston area, see Swamplot, which zooms in on the map and highlights the possible station locations. I’ll be very interested to see what that draft environmental analysis looks like. I’m not exactly sure what an I-10 corridor would look like in this context, as there doesn’t appear to be an obvious place for the right of way that would be needed. As there are likely to be more changes coming, so are there more questions to be answered. The Trib has more.

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.