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Surface Transportation Board

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.

Feds leave oversight of Texas Central to the state

No change in status.

A proposed high-speed rail line between Houston and Dallas will remain a mostly Texas matter following a federal decision which opponents cheered as a blow to the project, while backers said provided a definitive scope of the planning process.

The Surface Transportation Board on Monday determined it has no oversight of the 240-mile line planned by Texas Central Partners that has drawn opposition from rural residents while enjoying support in the two metropolitan areas because the project lies completely within Texas. Texas Central had argued its connectivity to Amtrak gave federal officials some oversight, but the board rejected that.

“Should Texas Central develop concrete plans that would make the Line part of the interstate rail network, such as an actual through ticketing arrangement with Amtrak or a shared station with an interstate passenger rail line, Texas Central could seek board authority at that time,” federal officials wrote in their decision.

[…]

Texans Against High-Speed Rail, formed to oppose the line’s development through rural areas, called the federal decision a major victory, along with a number of local elected leaders.

See here, here, and here for the background. A copy of the STB’s letter is embedded in the Chron story. I’m not sure how much difference this makes, because whatever the STB had decided to do, there will be a renewed effort among Texas Central’s opponents to put insurmountable obstacles in their way in the next legislative session. There’s a group of legislators – mostly rural, with some suburban, all east of I-35 – who oppose the proposed high speed rail line, and there’s a group of legislators – mostly urban, with some suburban, all in the Houston and Metroplex area – who support it. The former group is larger and more driven, but they are not close to a majority. The question is what happens if they manage to get a bill that would cripple the rail line out of committee. We don’t know how open the large number of uncommitted legislators are to either side’s arguments, and we also don’t know what Greg Abbott’s opinion is. If Texas Central can make it through the 2017 session without getting kneecapped, they will be able to start construction as they hope to later that year. I believe that once they do start building the line, it will become a lot harder to kill, though that won’t stop anyone from trying. This will be a big issue to watch in the spring. The Press has more.

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.

High speed rail opponents pick up another Congressional ally

Welcome aboard, Smokey Joe.

In a filing with the Surface Transportation Board, North Texas Congressman Joe Barton (R) Arlington has come out against a high speed rail project between Dallas and Houston.

Barton, whose district encompasses parts of Tarrant County and the city of Arlington that supports Texas Central Railway’s high speed rail line, claims that Ellis and Navarro counties in his district will be dissected.

Barton, who in the filing dated May 9, 2016 said that while he generally supports private investment in high speed rail projects, voiced that the project would not be economically feasible or necessary. He claims that inexpensive air travel is available between Dallas and Houston and there are few delays on I-45 between the two major regions.

In his letter to the STB Congressman Barton said that county and state roads would be closed off if the rail line is built and that few jobs would be created in construction of the 240 mile rail line.

“Congressman Barton obviously has been getting bad information from his staff on this project because the Texas Central website has a whole different story,” according to Texas Rail Advocates President Peter LeCody. “It’s a shame that a Congressman who champions private investment would be so misinformed.”

You can see Barton’s letter here. Barton is not the first member of Congress to come out against the high speed rail line; Rep. Kevin Brady was already there. And if you’re wondering what the Surface Transportation Board is, there you go.

Barton’s letter came a couple of days after TCR formally asked the STB to get involved.

Developers of Texas’ high-speed train have asked the federal Surface Transportation Board (STB) to confirm it has oversight of the project, bringing it in line with the nation’s other major passenger and freight railroads.

Texas Central recently filed a formal petition to the STB, asking that the agency affirm its jurisdiction over the project and to weigh in on critical next steps that will include construction and operation of the passenger link between North Texas and Houston, with a midway stop in the Brazos Valley.

Texas Central is required to seek STB certification of the project, thus complying with the federal regulatory process that all newly constructed rail lines must follow. Links here and here to the two STB filings.

This request does not seek to remove protections afforded to landowners under Texas law. It merely clarifies the STB procedures that Texas Central must follow and does not change or override any state landowner protections.

The STB will not issue a final decision until the environmental review is completed but Texas Central asked the board to issue an interim order as soon as practicable.

[…]

The STB requires a project to outline its goals and objectives so that the agency can consider its role. Texas Central’s petition explains that Texas high-speed rail meets the conditions needed to gain STB jurisdiction, similar to other passenger and freight railroads in the country. Among the factors supporting Texas Central:

* It is a transportation infrastructure project of national importance, providing “a safe, reliable, convenient and environmentally friendly travel option.”

* The Texas route – between two major commercial hubs – fills a gap in existing passenger service and significantly adds to the country’s general passenger railway network.

* Its planned passenger stations – in Dallas, Houston and Grimes County – are designed to enhance local and interstate transportation connections.

A draft environmental impact statement from the FRA, which began work on that last year, is expected this summer. There will be more hearings on the proposed routes after that, with construction aimed to begin in late 2017, although Texas Central has suggested the timeline may slip into 2018. Assuming this happens at all, which if the opponents keep piling up powerful allies may be in doubt. I’m still mostly optimistic, but there sure are a lot of obstacles out there, and in the end it may only take one.

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.

High speed rail opponents go to Congress

Here’s a press release from Texans Against High Speed Rail:

Lawmakers in Austin who represent thousands of Texans along the proposed Dallas Houston high-speed rail project being promoted by Texas Central Railway (TCR) have officially requested opposition to the project from the Texas delegation in Washington, DC. With an application to the federal level Surface Transportation Board (STB) likely, all five state senators and nine state house members who represent the areas between Dallas and Houston called on the federal delegation representing those areas to preemptively oppose any application for public convenience and necessity by the high-speed rail company at the STB.

Texas State Senators Brian Birdwell, Brandon Creighton, Lois Kolkhorst, Robert Nichols and Charles Schwertner, as well as State Representatives Trent Ashby, Cecil Bell, Jr., Byron Cook, Kyle Kacal, Mark Keough, Will Metcalf, John Raney, Leighton Schubert and John Wray, signed the April 10 letter siting TCR’s intent to use eminent domain to acquire land, loss of property value, project viability concerns and widespread opposition as their reasons for opposing the proposed bullet train.

“For the rural counties impacted by the proposed routes, this project would only serve as a detriment. Although rural counties may benefit from a few jobs during the construction phase, the long-term costs far outweigh any temporary benefit. This project holds real consequences for rural constituents, their property and their livelihoods. Private property interests will be taken by eminent domain. Farm and ranchland, often held by families for generations, will be divided, creating a loss in access and a loss in revenue for those who rely on farming and ranching to make a living. The value of nearby land will decrease due to sight, noise and restricted use of property caused by the high-speed rail.”

The letter went on to state, “We appreciate any assistance you can provide in opposing any TCR application at the STB…As duly-elected officials representing our constituents at the federal level, each of you has a unique opportunity to have an impact on this project before it is unilaterally advanced by the appointees who comprise the STB.”

The federal government is your enemy until you need it to do something for you, I guess. The link comes via Rodger Jones of the DMN, who analyzes it thusly:

What that tells me is this: These 14 rural lawmakers who oppose high-speed rail in Texas fear they’ll fall short of blocking the project in the Legislature, so now they’ve opened up a second front. That makes a better show of things for the folks back home.

Even if Sen. Lois Kolkhorst gets her rail-killing SB 1601 through the Senate, it would have to survive the choke-points in the House.

I agree with his view of the prospects for Sen. Kolkhorst to get her bill passed. The fact that two Republicans on the committee, both from the Metroplex, suggested this would be a tough fight for her, as she couldn’t simply count on partisan advantage.

If you follow this link from Jones’ piece, it’s about the invocations by rail opponents of the much-hated Trans Texas Corridor. While there are some parallels between these two projects, there are some major differences as well, with the amount of right-of-way needed – about 100 feet for Texas Central Railway versus nearly 1000 feet for the TTC – being a key one. I have some sympathy for these rural counties, as there’s not much the Texas Central Railway project will do for them, but I don’t care for fearmongering. To address the allegations that high speed rail opponents have been making, TCR released Texas Central Rumor vs Reality, which is included in Jones’ post. I’ve had the experience of riding the shinkansen in Japan, so I can speak directly to the noise issue: That train is actually amazingly quiet. It’s no louder than Houston’s light rail line, and in comparison to, say, truck traffic on a highway, it’s barely noticeable. There’s more in the document, so go check it out. There are arguments to be made against the TCR, and opponents in rural areas have a point when they argue that they are not beneficiaries of this project. But they lose me when they start making stuff up. The Star-Telegram has more.