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Will Metcalf

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.

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.

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.

Texas Central Railway to hold “informational” meetings

I hope this effort isn’t too little, too late for them.

Backers of a high-speed rail line plan a series of meetings this month in rural areas where the proposed Houston-to-Dallas tracks could cross, setting up discussions with some of the project’s biggest skeptics.

“What we were surprised at is the amount of misinformation out there,” said Richard Lawless, chairman and CEO of Texas Central High-Speed Railway.

The company on Friday announced a dozen meetings between April 9 and April 24 in places where the rail system could be located. The meetings are unrelated to previous ones hosted by the Federal Railroad Administration, which must approve the location and design of any passenger rail service.

[…]

Waller, Grimes, Leon, Navarro and Madison counties have passed resolutions opposing the project, with many local officials saying the company has evaded some questions and failed to provide enough details to help people make an informed decision. State lawmakers have filed bills that would limit the company’s ability to acquire land via eminent domain, should that be necessary.

“We need more roads for citizens to travel to ease our existing roadways. We do not need a High Speed Railway in Texas that will only benefit a few, while at the same time disturbing thousands of citizens,” said Rep. Will Metcalf, R-Conroe, in a statement announcing his legislation in February.

Lawless said he understood some of the frustrations. The upcoming meetings, he said, will give people a chance to see what sort of system the company wants to build.

“What we’re trying to do is get at those issues with facts,” Lawless said. “The idea is to show people what (the system) looks like, to show them this is what we mean when we say, ‘no at-grade crossings.’ ”

See here, here, and here for some background on the rural opposition to the TCR proposal. Rep. Metcalf is the author of the bill that would effectively kill the rail line. It was referred to the House Transportation Committee on March 11, and as far as I can tell has not yet been scheduled for a hearing. I get the concerns that rural communities have about this, but anyone who thinks we can build enough roads to ease our existing roadways doesn’t understand what urban and suburban Texas is like these days. One way or another we are going to need alternatives to that model.

Bill filed to kill high speed rail line

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

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

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

[…]

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

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

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

“We need more roads for citizens to travel to ease our existing roadways,” Metcalf said. “We do not need a high speed railway in Texas that will only benefit a few, while at the same time disturbing thousands of citizens within its path.”

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

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

Opposition to the high speed rail line gets organized

You had to figure something like this was coming. I was recently informed of NoTexasCentral.com, and I’ll let them introduce themselves:

Texas Central Railway (TCR), a Japanese funded Texas-based private railroad company, is set to build and operate a high speed train system from Dallas to Houston. With stations slated only at the ends of the line, the train will run at over 200 mph through some of Texas’ most beautiful farmland, marring the landscape and tranquility of our great state, as well as displacing families and disrupting farming and ranching operations. Closer into the terminating cities, historic neighborhoods and small businesses will be affected in irreparable ways. Property value loss, probable tax hikes to offset lost revenue from lowered property values, property loss, environmental impacts, lack of economic benefit and noise/vibration disruptions will all impact the lives of so many Texans.

We all oppose the current primary and secondary routes being selected by Texas Central Railway. Help us save our homes and farmland from this high speed train by voicing your opposition!

Their Facebook page is here. While rural counties have been resistant to the high speed rail line for some time now, the focal point of the opposition appears to be in Montgomery County, as This story linked from the Facebook page illustrates:

More than 800 people packed the Lone Star Community Center in Montgomery Monday night to learn what they can do to stop a proposed multibillion-dollar high-speed rail route that would cut through West Montgomery County and connect Houston with Dallas.

According to local legislators and county elected officials, the Texas Central Railway, a private company planning the high-speed rail, has the power of eminent domain to make the project happen.

“This is one of the biggest threats to the county I have seen in years,” former Montgomery County Judge Alan B. Sadler told the crowd. “It’s extreme, ladies and gentlemen.”

[…]

“I am not a happy camper,” said state Rep. Will Metcalf, R-Conroe, adding he is frustrated by the lack of transparency on the project. “They are moving forward and we need your help.

“I don’t believe private enterprise should have eminent domain power. In regard to the 10th Amendment, I talked a lot about this during my campaign; we are living it here today. Federal overreach, they are bypassing us at the state, the county, and that is not OK.”

Metcalf urged residents to contact U.S Rep. Kevin Brady, R-The Woodlands, U.S. Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, and U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas.

“When Montgomery County is joined together, we are unstoppable,” Metcalf said.

Precinct 2 Commissioner Charlie Riley told the crowd that even though the project would cut through his precinct, he has not been contacted by TCR about the rail line. He said he is determined to stop the project.

“Whatever we need to do to stay united and stay strong, we will support it to make sure this doesn’t happen,” Riley said.

Precinct 1 Commissioner Mike Meador said while Montgomery County Commissioners Court passed a resolution late last year that it did not support the project, he added it is time for the court to readdress that resolution and “toughen it up.”

I’ve discussed the Montgomery County issues before. At one point, Montgomery County Commissioners Court passed a resolution saying they would oppose any alignment that didn’t include the I-45 corridor. The impression I get now is that the locals there would prefer to try to kill project altogether. They’ve started collecting the support of elected officials to back them up. A story in the Leader News from a couple of weeks ago that as far as I know never appeared online mentioned three State Senators that have signed a letter to TxDOT opposing the use of eminent domain and any state funds for this project – Sen. Lois Kolkhorst was one, Sen. Brandon Creighton was another, and (oops!) I can’t remember the third. There’s a great irony here in that one of the selling points of the TCR approach has been that by not seeking public money for the rail line they can avoid a lot of the political battles and streamline the process. That sure doesn’t appear to be the case any more.

Meanwhile, the Houston-based opposition is still looking for alternate routes.

So what is the alternative? Civic leaders from the neighborhoods under threat from the two proposed routes have joined together to chart a better way forward, seeking solutions that will allow high-speed rail to serve Houston without blighting residential neighborhoods – theirs or anyone else’s. This inter-neighborhood working group has put forward two suggested approaches.

The first is to terminate the line outside Houston’s central business district, at a location such as the Northwest Transit Center, an idea that Texas Central Railroad itself has floated. Unlike many other cities, Houston has multiple commercial centers, and much of the potential ridership here is located west and northwest of downtown. An express bus service or a light-rail line could connect the terminus with downtown; at a public meeting last fall, a METRO spokesperson embraced the idea of providing such a connection. And terminating the high-speed rail line outside the Central Business District would avoid exacerbating traffic and parking problems the way a downtown terminus would, with riders from around the city having to travel downtown to reach it.

Alternatively, if a downtown terminus is deemed necessary, the approach to downtown should be routed not through residential neighborhoods but down highway or industrial corridors. A route along I-45 was one of the routes examined and rejected by the Federal Railroad Administration, but deserves reconsideration. A route along I-10, which Texas Central Railroad representatives have acknowledged as worthy of consideration, should also be investigated as a way to reach central Houston. Several other variations, involving the Hempstead/290 corridor, I-610 North Loop, and/or the Harris County Hardy Toll Road corridor, are worth looking into.

See here for the background. The actual route has not been determined yet, and as this statement from Texas Central, posted on the No Texas Central Facebook page, makes clear, even the two “preferred routes” that have been highlighted so far are really just corridors. We won’t have a clear idea of what we might get until the Federal Railroad Administration posts the scoping report to its website. In the meantime, there’s still a lot of opportunity to affect things. I’ll continue to keep an eye on it.

First steps in Montgomery County

You can’t win a race if you don’t have a candidate.

Michael Hayles

Democrat Michael Hayles says Montgomery County’s poor have to balance some tough choices, and he extends his arms in a rocking motion to make the point.

“Do I get cars fixed or do I buy food for my family?” Hayles said.

Hayles has been working with the poor for years and now hopes to take that experience to Austin. A candidate for the state legislature, Hayles, 58, is the only Democrat running for office in Montgomery County, one of the most conservative regions in the country.

He is also the first candidate to run against a Republican in the county in six years. No Democrat has beaten a Republican in more than two decades.

While Conroe native Will Metcalf said he is confident he can build on the momentum of his May primary victory and maintain the GOP’s winning streak, Hayles hopes to defy experts, history and fundraising barriers by getting more of those in need to vote.

“They’ve been ignored enough by local politicians,” Hayles said.

The 16th state House district, which is just north of The Woodlands and encompasses the cities of Conroe and Montgomery and communities as far east as Cut and Shoot, was represented by Brandon Creighton, who was elected to the state Senate in a special election last August.

Hayles said he plans to meet with community groups in poorer, outlying areas of the district like Dobbin and Deerwood. He tells residents that he’ll look after their interests.

The Democrat said he will focus on enabling those in need to get jobs through education and also use public dollars to invest in the area’s infrastructure. Texas’s budget surplus needs to be invested in education instead of tax breaks, he said.

Running for office at any level and in any geographic entity is difficult, but some races are tougher than others. To put this race into perspective, Bill White scored 22.48% in HD16 in 2010. Farther down the ballot, Hector Uribe, the Democratic candidate for Land Commissioner, scored 15.40%. Let’s just say this is a long-term project and go from there. Still, the first step on this thousand-mile journey is finding good people to take on this thankless task, and have them find and talk to the people that have been left out by the dominant political culture. I’m sure the vast majority of the people he talks to, however many of them he does get to, will not have had that experience before. That’s important, and it’s something that candidates and groups like Battleground Texas and the Texas Organizing Project can build on. I’ll be interested to see how Hayles does in comparison to that benchmark.

Like I said, Step One is to engage the people that live there and work to turn them into voters. This Chron story from a couple of weeks ago gave another peek into that in Montgomery County.

As accordion-heavy music played in the background, Lucia Mendez hunched over an electronic voting machine under a canopy, learning about the displays and controls she would see on Election Day.

Mendez, 19, said she had never voted before. But on Sunday, at a festival put on by the Montgomery County Democratic Party geared toward the region’s growing Latino population, Mendez registered to vote for the first time.

“If you want something to change you’ve got to be part of it,” Mendez said at the Conroe park where the event was held.

In one of the most conservative regions in the country, where whites dominate most political offices, community leaders say that Hispanics such as Mendez have felt perpetually disenfranchised even though they now make up one-fifth of the population.

Both major parties are trying to tap into the potential Latino voter base, with Democrats hoping they can tip the scale in a county that has been red for decades and Republicans looking to strengthen their supremacy.

Mendez said she wouldn’t commit to a party. But for Democrats in Montgomery County, just recruiting Hispanic voters like Mendez, who lives in Willis and feels strongly about immigration issues, to register is a victory.

“We want them all to come out and vote,” said Bruce Barnes, the county’s Democratic Party chairman.

Over the last 15 years, the Hispanic population in the county has nearly tripled, from around 37,000 in 2000 to more than 100,000 people in 2013, according to U.S. Census Bureau estimates. People of Hispanic or Latino origin make up more than 20 percent of the county of 500,000, up from 13 percent in 2000, according to the most recent estimates.

Texas will be Massachusetts by the time Montgomery becomes a swing county, but that doesn’t mean efforts like these aren’t important. Turning Montgomery from a 75% GOP county to a 65% county would be a big step forward. Going back to the 2010 Governor’s race, if Bill White had lost by a 65-35 margin there, he would have netted a bit more than 25,000 extra votes. At that less hopeless level, you can seriously talk about winning municipal races, and build a bit of a bench with an eye towards a State Rep seat or a County Commissioner post. This is what the Republicans were doing all over the state forty and fifty years ago. No time like the present for the Democrats to be doing it as well.