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Texans Against High Speed Rail

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 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.

Five anti-Texas Central bills approved by Senate committee

It just got real.

Five bills filed by state lawmakers fearful a high-speed rail project planned between Houston and Dallas will be a dud and need help from the state passed a key committee Wednesday, breezing their way past opposition from supporters of the line.

The bills approved Wednesday by the Senate Transportation Committee, three by state Sen. Charles Schwertner, R-Georgetown, and one each by state Sens. Lois Kolkhorst, R-Brenham, and Brian Birdwell, R-Granbury, address various concerns.


Schwertner said the efforts by skeptics are “simply about taxpayers and keeping them off the hook should a private high speed rail project fail.”

Supporters of the lines called them poison pills not just for Texas Central, but innovation in Texas.

“It sends a chilling message to business across the world and across the country that want to bet on Texas,” said Chris Lippincott, executive director of Texas Rail Advocates, a group supportive of the line. “These bills turn the Texas welcome mat into a do-not-enter sign.”

See here for the background. The Trib has specifics.

The five bills are among more than 20 pieces of legislation aimed at privately-operated high-speed rail in Texas that lawmakers have filed this session. All five also have House companions that have yet to be heard in that chamber’s committees.


Senate Bill 979 originally would have prevented any privately operated high-speed rail company from using eminent domain. But state Sen. Charles Schwertner, R-Georgetown, removed that provision in a version of the bill presented Wednesday morning. The bill still requires a company that takes land under the “threat” of eminent domain for a high-speed rail project must return the land to the previous owners if the project isn’t eventually built.

The bill passed out of the committee unanimously.

Schwertner authored two of the other bills passed Wednesday. Senate Bill 977would forbid lawmakers from allocating any state funds to a privately operated high-speed rail project. It would also prohibit any state agencies from using state money on the planning, construction or operation of a bullet train line.

Schwertner’s wording on that provision of the bill is similar to a provision in the Senate’s proposed budget that he wrote. Texas Central called that budget wording a “job killer” that would create “vague and ambiguous questions” about its ability to coordinate and work with the Texas Department of Transportation, which is helping shepherd the project through the federal approval process.

But Schwertner on Wednesday presented a memo from TxDOT government affairs director Jerry Haddican. The letter said the state agency should still be able to answer questions from Texas Central, review and provide advice on the company’s plans and build state roads and highways that connect to development around high-speed rail stations under Schwertner’s budget rider.

Texas Central president Tim Keith said Wednesday that the memo “was received well” after he “quickly” reviewed a copy of it but the company did not formally change its position on Schwertner’s bill.

State Sen. Sylvia Garcia, D-Houston, cast the sole dissenting vote against that bill.

Kolkhorst’s Senate Bill 981 would require Texas Central’s line to allow for more than one type of train technology. Texas Central currently only plans to allow for one type of train on its tracks. It is partnering with Central Japan Railway, the company the developed the technology for the Shinkansen bullet trains that run throughout Japan, for the Texas line.

Kolkhorst said her bill is aimed at preventing a monopoly, especially if the line is expanded to other cities inside or outside of Texas.

“This allows a more comprehensive network to be developed and allows train operators to purchase trains from a variety of manufacturers,” Kolkhorst said.

Keith said the line will physically fit other types of trains. But its signaling and safety systems will only be built to accommodate the bullet trains.

“The Japanese system is designed that way to avoid crashes,” said Holly Reed, a company spokeswoman. “That’s part of the safety system.”

Garcia again cast the sole dissenting vote against Kolkhorst’s bill.

The transportation committee also unanimously passed out Senate Bill 975, which would require high-speed rail operators to reimburse law enforcement agencies for any officers’ time used. The committee also passed Senate Bill 980, which would prohibit any privately operated high-speed rail line from receiving state money or loans unless the state first puts a lien on the project or receives a security interest in it. Garcia also cast the sole dissenting vote on that bill.

The bills sound less onerous than when they were first introduced, but Texas Central still opposed them all and said when they were introduced that they considered them all a serious threat to their business. What I would be concerned about right now if I were Texas Central is that Sen. Garcia was the only No vote on any of these bills, even though the Senate Transportation Committee has three Democrats plus Metroplex-area Sen. Kelly Hancock. That’s the first concrete sign that the mostly rural antis have broadened their base of support. If you didn’t know anything about Texas Central, some of these bills would sound pretty reasonable, which may be why they all passed out of committee so easily. But I think it’s fair to say that whatever goals Texas Central had in lobbying against these bills, they didn’t do as well as they surely might have liked. From here on out, it’s crunch time for them.

A really dumb “Trump and the train” article


Texas is closer than ever to building the first high-speed train in the United States, thanks to President Donald Trump’s fascination with these transportation projects and a well-timed pitch to his administration.

Now developers nationwide are looking to the privately owned Texas Central Railway as a test case of what can get done with Trump in the White House.

Former Houston Astros owner Drayton McLane Jr., a member of the company’s board of directors, met recently with Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao in Washington. He wasn’t seeking any of the taxpayer-funded grants sought by high-speed rail projects in California and the Northeast.

What the $10 billion Texas Central Railway really needs is a green light from the agency Chao oversees.

“It was an opportunity to make a first impression,” said Tim Keith, president of Texas Central Railway.

The meeting clearly stuck. Soon after, Chao mentioned the Texas Central Railway at the National Governors Association winter conference as an example of the kind of “very impressive” project the administration is interested in.

The question now is whether private investment — coupled with regulatory relief — is a model the Trump administration could use to finance and expedite his promised $1 trillion infrastructure push, and not just in Texas.


California is building a 220-mph high-speed rail system, but that project has been delayed by political opposition. Its trains also have to meet more rigorous federal standards for crash protection because they will share tracks with commuter trains, Amtrak and some freight.

By building a self-contained system where trains will not intersect with street traffic or encounter slower trains, the Texas project can employ off-the-shelf technology in use in Japan for more than 50 years.

“It’s going to be a lot easier than the California project,” said Peter LeCody, president of Texas Rail Advocates and chairman of the National Association of Railroad Passengers, both advocacy groups that support the Texas project. “They’ll have a little harder way to go in California than in Texas.”


High-speed rail has been a topic in Texas for 30 years, but Keith thinks its moment has come.

“What’s happening in Texas is private entrepreneurs are saying, look there’s demand, there’s pent-up demand,” he said. “We can meet the demand.”

The biggest obstacles for the railway could be back home in Texas. Some landowners along the route want to derail the project, and they have help from allies in the state Legislature.

“You’re talking about property rights. In Texas, we love our land,” said LeCody with Texas Rail Advocates.

LeCody said Texas was changing and needed a transportation system that addressed road congestion and population growth.

“We’re such a growing state,” he said. “We’ve got to learn how to move people from point A to point B without highways.”

See here for previous Trump-and-the-train coverage. Where to begin with this article?

1. The article makes it sound like interest in high speed rail is something unique to Dear Leader Trump. In fact, President Obama had national high speed rail ambitions, which included plans for Texas that unfortunately didn’t pan out due to our own lack of initiative. To be sure, that was government funding for high speed rail, while Texas Central is all about private funding. I’m just saying that the idea of high speed rail here did not originate with Trump.

2. The opposition to Texas Central is barely acknowledged in this story, much less analyzed. There’s a full court press in the Legislature, which Texas Central itself acknowledges as an existential threat. I’ve always been somewhat skeptical of the likelihood of success for the Texas Central opponents, mostly because they don’t appear to have grown their base beyond the mostly rural counties in East and Central Texas, but they are working hard at this and they have some powerful and influential Senators on their side. Not talking to a Brandon Creighton or Lois Kolkhorst about Texas Central is at the least a disservice to the readers. For crying out loud, the story uses a Texas Central booster to discuss the opposition. Even as a Texas Central supporter myself, I say that’s just lousy journalism.

3. Outside the Legislature, there is a fervent grassroots opposition to Texas Central as well, with a lot of that coming from county and municipal governments in the affected areas as well as from private citizens. There’s already been litigation over access to the land needed for the TCR right of way, and there will surely be more for as long as this project is in its planning and construction phase. One might also note that this opposition comes from places in the state that voted heavily for Trump. Maybe this isn’t the sort of thing that might get a voter to change their mind about a President, but again, not at least acknowledging this leaves the reader with a false impression.

4. Finally, the opposition to TCR includes two powerful Republican Congressmen from Texas, one of whom chairs the House Ways and Means Committee. If you don’t think it’s possible that Rep. Kevin Brady could slip a rider into the budget that guts Texas Central, much like Rep. John Culberson did to Metro and the Universities line, you’ve got an insufficiently active imagination.

Other than that, it was a fine article.

And as if to prove my point, we have this.

The Texas Senate’s chief budget writers Wednesday added a provision to its proposed state budget aimed at limiting state assistance in a private firm’s efforts to build a Dallas-Houston bullet train.

The budget rider approved by the Senate Finance Committee would prohibit the Texas Department of Transportation from spending funds to help plan, build or operate a high-speed train.

The company developing a 205-mph bullet train between Dallas and Houston called the language a “job killer.” Texas Central Partners has vowed it won’t take any state funds to develop the 240-mile line between Texas’ two largest metropolitan areas. But, the company said, it still needs to work with state transportation officials.

“Texas Central engineers and employees need to be able to coordinate with TxDOT on the planning, engineering and construction of the high-speed train to accommodate the state’s growth,” said in a statement released by the company Wednesday.

State Sen. Charles Schwertner, R-Georgetown, denied that the budget rider he wrote was meant to kill the project.

“If we are being told that this is never going to take any bailouts, they need to put their money where their mouth is,” he said.

A similar amendment nearly killed the project two years ago, but was eventually omitted from the state’s final budget.

See here and here for the background. Note that it was Sen. Schwertner who tried this trick in 2015 as well. We’ll see what happens with it. I trust you see my point about why this article sucked.

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.

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.

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.

High speed rail opponents sue TxDOT and AG’s office

They seek information that they say they have been denied so far.

A group opposed to a private firm’s plans to build a bullet train stretching from Dallas to Houston has filed a lawsuit against the Texas Department of Transportation and Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton in an effort to obtain communications between the firm and state officials.

Texans Against High-Speed Rail submitted a public information request last year to TxDOT seeking any documentation from the agency related to Texas Central Partners, the private firm developing the rail. The group is arguing that many of the documents responsive to the request were withheld and the information that was released was heavily redacted without clear reasoning.

“I think there’s a lot of documents that were not provided,” said Kyle Workman, president of Texans Against High-Speed Rail, a group of largely rural opponents attempting to derail the project. “I think there were a lot of documents that were redacted inappropriately. We’re hopeful that we can work with the state and get this resolved relatively quickly and painlessly.”

Workman said the request, submitted on March 20 last year, asked for any documents concerning Texas Central or its proposed high-speed railway from 2009 to 2015. The lawsuit claims the resulting records would likely consist of email communications between the various entities involved with the project.

Upon receiving the request, TxDOT kicked it to the Attorney General’s office, seeking a ruling on whether the documents could legally be released. According to the lawsuit, Texas Central submitted a brief to Paxton’s office urging them not to release certain information as it “contains trade secret and confidential commercial and financial information.”

Texas Central submitted a copy of the brief to Texans Against High-Speed Rail with much of its contents redacted. The lawsuit claims the redacted brief limits the group’s ability to challenge a ruling from the Attorney General because they cannot develop an “effective challenge” without “sufficient identification of the alleged confidential information.”

The Attorney General ruled in July that TxDOT could withhold documents discussing certain information. Workman said the group eventually received some documents from their request earlier this year, though they had significant holes. The Attorney General’s office did not return requests for comment Thursday.

The theory that Texans Against High-Speed Rail is working on is that the state is secretly in cahoots with Texas Central, rather than simply serving as a regulator. Anything’s possible, I suppose, though I don’t really see Ken Paxton as being particularly sympathetic to Texas Central. But we’ll see.

High speed rail opponents write a letter to Japan


Thirty-three East Texas officials sent a letter to the Japanese ambassador to the United States on Monday to express their opposition to a private Texas firm’s proposed high-speed rail line between Dallas and Houston that has strong ties to a Japanese company.

The letter is the latest effort by opponents of Texas Central Partners’ multibillion-dollar project since the firm’s 2012 announcement of its plan to bring Japanese train operator JR Central’s bullet train technology to Texas. Under the agreement, JR Central would sell its Shinkansen trains to Texas Central and play an advisory role on the system’s operations. A Japanese-backed government fund has also invested $40 million in the project.

In the letter to Japanese Ambassador Kenichiro Sasae, local officials argued that the bullet train would burden their communities without providing any benefits and called on Sasae to seek out a different market for the project. The signers of the letter include eleven Republican members of the Legislature: State Sens. Brian Birdwell of Granbury, Lois Kolkhorst of Brenham and Charles Schwertner of Georgetown, and State Reps. Trent Ashby of Lufkin, Cecil Bell of Magnolia, Byron Cook of Corsicana, Kyle Kacal of College Station, Will Metcalf of Conroe, John Raney of College Station, Leighton Schubert of Caldwell, and John Wray of Waxahachie. Other signers include several county judges, county commissioners and members of sub-regional planning commissions in the rural areas that would be most affected by the proposal.

“While we respect your country’s ambitious goal of exporting the Shinkansen technology, as residents and leaders in East Texas, we remain opposed to the HSR Project because it will cause irreparable harm to our communities,” the officials wrote.


Texans Against High Speed Rail, which spearheaded the letter, touted it as a reflection of “overwhelming local opposition” to the project.

“This project is not just an issue of unwarranted use of eminent domain but also one of eventual taxpayer subsidies that will impact all Texans,” said Kyle Workman, the group’s president. “Our officials understand the full magnitude of the damage that can be done because of this, and I applaud their fortitude in standing with and for the citizens they represent on this issue.”

Given that the partnership between Texas Central and JR Central is a private one that does not directly involve the ambassador, Texans Against High Speed Rail is primarily hoping that Sasae will help facilitate further discussion with all interested parties, according to Judge Ben Leman of Grimes County, one of the signers of the letter.

“We want Japanese officials to know first-hand directly from the elected officials of the state of Texas how we feel about this project,” Grimes said. “Because there are so many Japanese sources of the funding, we’re hoping that not only will the ambassador read it and engage in communication with us directly and the aspects of the Japanese government that we need to speak with, but also engage with the United States government as well.”

Okay then. I guess it’s unclear to me what the letter writers hope to accomplish with this. Do they think the ambassador will pick up the phone and call Texas Central and tell them “Hey, you guys may not be aware of this, but some folks don’t like your project”? Or maybe pick up the phone and have the same conversation with some of the actual or potential Japanese investors in Texas Central? Has any business venture in another country that was backed by US-based companies been affected by the penning of a letter to the US ambassador in said country? I really have no idea what, other than getting a story written in the Trib (for which I say, well done), this was supposed to do that a letter to the editor of one’s local newspaper wouldn’t have done. I suppose one must do something during the legislative off-season to keep the momentum. The Press has more.

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.

Checking in on Texas Central

It’s still going.

The private firm hoping to build a high-speed rail line between Dallas and Houston has been celebrating a summer of successes: completing a successful round of fundraising, seeing a key federal study move forward, surviving the legislative session unscathed.

But three years after Texas Central Partners first revealed its ambitious venture, a series of financial, logistical and political challenges remain. To Kyle Workman, president of Texans Against High-Speed Rail, those challenges are enough to make him question whether construction on the project will ever begin.

“Frankly, they’re on a salvage mission,” Workman said of Texas Central executives. “They’re trying to generate news that says, ‘We think we’re close.’ The reality is, they’re not that close.”

Yet Tim Keith, who has served as Texas Central’s CEO for just more than a month, said the project is moving forward as planned and is more or less on schedule.

“I think my biggest challenge is conveying an abstract idea to Texans,” Keith said. “We are firmly committed to doing everything in our control and power to be selling tickets beginning in 2021.”


While many Houston- and Dallas-area officials have backed the project, officials in communities in between have mostly come out against it. Statewide officials have largely avoided taking a position.

“I want to see transportation needs satisfied,” Texas Gov. Greg Abbott said when asked about the bullet train at a June press conference in Dallas.

Though he didn’t make clear whether he supports the bullet train, Abbott touched on the two issues that drew concerns from the Legislature this year. He said he aimed to ensure that the project neither spent any public tax dollars nor infringed on private property rights.

“As this process moves along, I will diligently work to ensure that both of those criteria are satisfied,” Abbott said.

Yes, for all the jockeying that various legislators and local officials have done, the statewides have been pretty quiet about Texas Central. Normally, a business that plans to invest billions in Texas would be catnip for Abbott and Dan Patrick and so on, but the politics here are more complex than that. My guess is that they will jump on the bandwagon of whichever side prevails, right around the point at which it becomes clear which side will win.

The Federal Railroad Administration launched an environmental review of the project in 2014. Last month, the railroad administration narrowed its focus for the train route to a “utility corridor,” which is reserved for high-voltage electric transmission lines. Any route within that corridor would likely involve the train crossing some private land.

Keith, who joined Texas Central as CEO in July, said he is hopeful the railroad administration will offer tentative approval for a route within the corridor this fall and that the company would be able to quickly follow with discussions with affected landowners. A railroad administration spokesman declined to comment.

Major infrastructure projects hit a turning point when people can study specific routes, said Robert Puentes, director of the Metropolitan Infrastructure Initiative at the Brookings Institution in Washington, D.C.

“It’s easy to oppose or support something in the abstract,” Puentes said. “When you start really thinking about the details of where the construction happens and how it interacts with the existing land and the existing users, it becomes much more real.”


Company officials are expected to formally request next year that the railroad administration agree to waive or tweak various federal regulations. Keith acknowledged the train’s speed is part of the need for regulatory waivers but said so too is the system’s advanced technology, including its signaling and automatic train control system, both of which would be new to the United States. The Shinkansen’s famed record of zero casualties in over 50 years of operation in Japan is likely to play a central role in the company’s argument to federal regulators.

“The approach that this system takes is crash avoidance and that is different from some of the existing regulations for trains currently operating in the U.S.,” Keith said.

I feel pretty confident that Texas Central will pass the environmental review process. I doubt knowing the specifics will cool the ardor of their opponents, so they need to do what they can to avoid making any more enemies, because at some point that just becomes untenable. Looks like we may know something by mid 2016 or so. Paradise in Hell has more.

Feds approve a preferred corridor for the high speed rail line

One more step in the process.

The Federal Railroad Administration announced this month that the general route preferred by the project developer of a high-speed rail line between Dallas and Houston is indeed the best choice.

Known as the “utility corridor,” it runs somewhat along high-voltage electrical transmission lines and capitalizes on relatively straight, existing easements.

“It’s of interest to us because it provides a source of power for our system, is straighter for a larger portion and therefore more suitable for the engineering,” said Tim Keith, chief executive of Texas Central Partners, the developer.

The utility easement runs only to about Palmer in Ellis County. Between Dallas’ Union Station and the Trinity River, the path follows a railroad corridor.

The federal report issued Aug. 10 does not outline a specific route but a broad path with many possible alignments. Corridor choices were wide swaths. Elements of each could still make it into the final plan.

“There’s not a whole lot of clarity even with the declaration of the corridor,” said Kyle Workman, president of Texans Against High Speed Rail.

But Texas Central Partners says it’s enough of a definition to host open houses in towns along the line.

“As we identify that final alignment, we will know which parcels are effective and which landowners we will engage with,” Keith said.

See here for the background. It’s a little hard to tell from the picture I have embedded above, even if you click on it for the larger image, but if you look at the picture in this Houston Business Journal story, it’s the gold-colored line, not the red one. as to what actually happened, the Press dug a little deeper:

Basically, what happened is that Texas Central agreed to fund the environmental impact study, but the FRA is the one actually conducting said study. The FRA had simply reviewed the four proposed corridors for the bullet train. Texas Central had concluded that three of the four corridors were not viable options for various reasons, but the fourth corridor, which will run along or nearby high-tension utility lines, met the company’s criteria.

So yeah, two weeks ago the FRA posted a report stating that it had checked Texas Central’s information and reported that it was accurate and that Texas Central’s preferred line was the one option of four submitted that fit various criteria. But that doesn’t exactly mean the FRA approved anything. Now the FRA will simply continue with its environmental impact study of Texas Central’s proposed route. Agency reviewers are set to look at alignments, meaning they’ll consider the specific route instead of a broad swath of land — such as scouting specific locations and property near nearby the proposed line, along with tackling right-of-way issues. When you get to the alignments stage you have to know exactly where things will be in a fairly precise way, according to the FRA staffer. Texas Central is responsible for doing the proposals and approaching landowners and the FRA is responsible for reviewing these options and figuring out the best options and alternatives.

Once the alignment study is done, the FRA will finish up its environmental impact study – there’s months of work to do so it won’t be completed until next year at the earliest. Then there will be meetings and feedback and the FRA will issue it’s findings.

So, to sum it all up: The FRA didn’t so much approve the utility route as a corridor as it agreed that based on Texas Central’s work, and information reviewed by the FRA, that they would take Texas Central’s word that the utility corridor was the most viable option. Also, this happened two weeks ago. Also, Texas Central reps don’t seem to know when it actually happened.

Got all that? The utility corridor is preferred because the freight rail corridor has too many curves to accommodate the speed of the bullet train, and because there were issues in sharing tracks. Some of that will still need to be done under this alignment, as the utility corridor doesn’t run all the way to Dallas, but this will minimize that. Either way, the Houston end of the corridor is currently northwest of downtown, near 610 and 290. Whether the train continues into downtown or the terminal is built there – assuming all of the political opposition is overcome, of course – remains an open question, one that I hope the Mayoral candidates have given at least a passing thought to. Be that as it may, the next step in the process is the draft environmental impact statement. According to the Chron story, that’s about halfway done, though as noted above it’s still months away. That’s the point at which things start to get real.

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.

Bullet train budget rider battle continues

The budget rider to derail the high speed train is still under contention as the conference committee completes its work.

Tucked in Page 682 of the budget passed by the Senate in April is Rider 48, a provision that would bar the Texas Department of Transportation from spending any state funds toward “subsidizing or assisting in the construction of high-speed passenger rail.”

The budget rider is one of several efforts by some Republican lawmakers to stop Texas Central Railway’s plan to build a high-speed rail line that would travel between Dallas and Houston in less than 90 minutes, reaching speeds of 205 mph.

Texas Central has vowed to not take public operating subsidies. Nonetheless, company officials say the rider would kill the train because TxDOT, as the state agency in charge of transportation, would need to play a role in the project’s construction.

“If enacted the rider would constrain TxDOT’s ability to work with Texas Central Partners to perform important public safety duties,” the company argues on a website it launched this week to rally public support against the rider.

The Senate’s lead budget negotiator, Finance Chairwoman Jane Nelson, R-Flower Mound, said the rider remains one of the final sticking points between the House and the Senate.

“There is some question of whether that would handicap it to the point that you couldn’t build it,” Nelson said Wednesday of the rider. “There are very strong feelings on both sides of that issue.”


Two vocal critics of the project, Republican Sens. Lois Kolkhorst of Brenham and Charles Schwertner of Georgetown, are among the five senators on the budget conference committee working out a compromise version of the budget.

Schwertner said he was fighting for the rider to remain in the budget, citing concerns about how the project will impact property values and local economies.

“There’s all sorts of potential problems with the project that must be heard,” Schwertner said.


State Rep. Larry Gonzales, R-Round Rock, is representing the House in budget negotiations related to transportation. Asked about the high-speed rail rider Wednesday, he said that it was not proposed by the House. “That was in their budget. That’s their language. Rider 48. That’s them. It was not in our budget.”

Nelson said there have been multiple discussions about how to amend the rider in an effort to find a compromise.

“I think I’ve probably looked at seven different versions of amendments to the rider,” Nelson said. “I’m trying to come up with something that both sides may not totally agree with but it may calm them down.”

See here for the background. I personally am not a fan of settling policy matters in this fashion. It’s terribly un-democratic, as the finalized budget, with or without Rider 48, is not subject to debate or further amendment, just an up or down vote on the whole thing. The folks who oppose Texas Central Railway, who make their case for keeping Rider 48 on the Texans Against High Speed Rail Facebook page, were able to get bills introduced in each chamber to impede if not completely obstruct TCR, with one of those bills getting out of committee. Neither got any farther than that, but that’s the way it goes for 90% or so of all bills. It seems likely they’ll have another crack at it in 2017, and there’s always the possibility of federal action, too. There’s nothing nefarious about what they’re doing – budget riders are a well-known part of the puzzle – I would just prefer not to see the matter settled in this fashion.

One more shot at killing the high speed rail line

Never forget that the tricksiest maneuvers in the legislative handbook come in the budget.

Texas’ prospects of having the first high-speed train line in the nation hinge on two sentences in a proposed state budget that lawmakers in the House and Senate must hash out before the end of the month.

The Senate’s budget would prohibit the Texas Department of Transportation from spending any resources overseeing or regulating a privately funded attempt to connect Dallas and Houston with a bullet train.

Company officials say that will effectively kill the project because Texas Central Railway needs the state Transportation Department’s knowledge and oversight for key aspects of the project, even though it’s not seeking state funds for construction.

It was unclear Tuesday which senator on the conference committee hashing out both chambers’ budgets added the lines affecting high-speed rail projects. State, local and Texas Central officials described the addition as a backdoor attempt to mandate policy outside of public view.

“This was something that came in the dark of night and we just haven’t had a public discussion on it yet,” said Dallas Mayor Mike Rawlings, a major supporter of the project.

Texas Central chairman and CEO Richard Lawless said the addition of the language undercuts lawmakers’ consistent portrayal of Texas as a business-friendly state whose officials don’t hamstring private entities.

“It sends an incredibly bad signal to any private company that wants to do business in Texas,” Lawless said. “It says our process is unpredictable and it isn’t transparent.”

Sen. Jane Nelson, R-Flower Mound, chairs the group of senators who will work with House counterparts to reconcile both chambers’ bills. She could not be reached late Tuesday. That conference committee of lawmakers is focused on major differences on how best to provide tax cuts. It remains unclear whether or how they’ll address the Senate’s proposed language on high-speed rail projects.

Freshman Sen. Don Huffines, R-Dallas, isn’t on the conference committee but said he’s been talking to Nelson and other members about striking the language from the bill.

“I’m cautiously optimistic,” Huffines said.

As are the rail opponents, who as we know have been unable to get a bill passed to do what they want. At least this is now out in the open, so everyone knows what they’d be voting on. If this particular rider makes it through the conference committee process, it’s as good as in. If not, then that’s likely to be all she wrote. I’d say at this point that the odds slightly favor it not being part of the budget, but we won’t know for sure till we see the final product.

On a side note, Southwest Airlines reiterated their position that they haven’t taken a position on Texas Central Railway.

In fact, according to the Chronicle’s Erin Mulvaney, Southwest Airlines CEO Gary Kelly said Wednesday the Dallas-based airline has not yet taken a stance on the high-speed rail line.

“We just haven’t taken a position,” Kelly said during a question-and-answer session in Houston. “I think we’ve been careful to say there are three options, for, against or neutral. We haven’t picked. We’ve got other things we are focused on, to be blunt, which probably sheds some light on my opinion.”

Kelly’s statement is similar to others the company has made since the rural opposition became more vocal.

Kelly said that during the dust-up in the 90s, the plan to build a rail required government subsidies. Kelly said private developers have the freedom to build whatever they can.

“If it’s privately funded venture, I haven’t spent any time thinking about that,” he said.

Nothing to add to that, just noting it for the record.

Will the high speed rail opponents get a bill passed?

Seems unlikely at this point, but I wouldn’t count them out.

“The vast majority of the folks between Dallas and Houston are against it,” said Kyle Workman, president of the recently formed Texans Against High-Speed Rail. “They don’t want their land to be taken. They don’t want a train going through their quiet country landscape.”

Starting in 2021, Texas Central hopes to have its high-speed rail up and running, with trains traversing East Texas 62 times a day. The company says its tracks will be no wider than 100 feet at any point, requiring a total of 3,000 acres along its 240-mile route between Dallas and Houston.

The company said in a statement that it plans to “design large, frequent and conveniently located underpasses or overpasses to allow for the free movement of farm equipment, livestock, wildlife and vehicle traffic.” The electric-powered trains will be quieter than an 18-wheeler, the company says.

Workman is helping lead a coalition of high-speed rail critics backing several bills this session that could kill, or at least hobble, Texas Central’s ambitious project. Their partners include the Texas and Southwestern Cattle Raisers Association and county officials in all nine rural counties along the train’s proposed routes.

Two bills in particular have caught opponents’ attention. A bill from state Rep. Will Metcalf, R-Conroe, would require high-speed rail projects to secure approval from elected officials of every city and county along a proposed route. A measure from state Sen. Lois Kolkhorst, R-Brenham, would strip all high-speed rail companies of the eminent domain authority given to other rail firms.

Texas Central argues that the bills unfairly target its project just because its train would go faster than most others.

“I get emails every day from very hard-working Texans that want jobs and want this project to succeed,” Texas Central Executive Vice President Kathryn Kaufman said at a recent House Transportation Committee hearing. “All we ask is this train be treated the same as every private railroad in Texas.”

Texans Against High-Speed Rail formed in February. Workman, a construction consultant, lives halfway between Houston and Dallas in Jewett, and current proposed routes suggest Texas Central’s trains will go through his property, he said. His father is state Rep. Paul Workman, R-Austin. Though Workman said he doesn’t “broadcast that,” he acknowledged that a familiarity with the Capitol has helped the group quickly ramp up its efforts. (Asked about his position on the project, Paul Workman said in a statement, “This project is bad for all of Texas, and particularly for our rural communities.”)

The group’s leadership also includes Grimes County Judge Ben Leman and Magnolia funeral home director Glenn Addison, who ran for U.S. Senate in 2012.

The group hit a speed bump last month after The Dallas Morning News reported that it had hired an Austin lobbyist who also counted Dallas Area Rapid Transit as a client. DART has publicly backed the bullet train. Following the report, Texans Against High-Speed Rail had to quickly hire new lobbyists.


With less than a month left in the session, none of the bills targeting Texas Central’s project have reached the full House or Senate for a vote. This session may be the only shot for activists to stop the project at the Legislature. Construction could begin as early as the fourth quarter of 2016 depending on when the current federal review is completed, according to Texas Central. The Legislature is not scheduled to reconvene until 2017.

Workman predicted that if the Legislature doesn’t stop the project this year, growing community opposition will slow the company’s schedule enough that lawmakers will be able to address it in the next session.

“We are telling people that this is a three-year fight and we have two sessions that we have to go through,” Workman said.

See here for the background. Let’s assume neither the Metcalf bill nor the Kolkhorst bill gets passed in any form. If that happens, then it’s a question of how far along Texas Central can get on the federal EIS process by 2017, and whether they can do anything to blunt the opposition by then. There’s also the possibility of litigation, and given the shenanigans that light rail opponents in Houston trotted out, all sorts of delay and distract potential. So overall I’d say Workman is right that this fight will still be going on in the next session, but there’s a wide range of possible places for each side to be when that next session gavels in. Finally, keep an eye on Southwest Airlines and what if any position they take in this debate. They may or may not get involved, but if they do it could have a significant effect.

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.

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.

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.)