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Texas Rail Advocates

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[…]

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ugh.

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.

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.