In recent weeks, state Sen. Lois Kolkhorst has emerged as a leading critic of a private company’s plans to develop a high-speed rail line between Dallas and Houston.
“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, a Brenham Republican, said last week at a Senate Transportation Committee hearing on her bill, which would dramatically undercut Texas Central High-Speed Railway’s plans to build a bullet train line. “I just don’t see it, and I’m not sure I want Texas to be the guinea pig on this.”
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.”
Kolkhorst has said she has had concerns about how Texas Central's project would affect rural communities in her Senate district since first hearing about it. In January, she was among the senators who signed a letter opposing the project to the Federal Railroad Administration, which is in the middle of an environmental review of the project.
In March, Kolkhorst filed Senate Bill 1601 to exclude a private company from employing eminent domain authority to develop a high-speed rail system, which the bill defines as “an intercity passenger rail service” expected to travel at 110 miles per hour or faster. Texas Central has said it intends for the trains on its system would travel faster than 200 miles per hour. While Dallas and Houston officials have endorsed the project, it has drawn some opposition from rural communities along the route, including in part of Kolkhorst's district.
Texas Central officials have argued that Kolkhorst’s bill unfairly targets high-speed rail projects as hundreds of other private companies would retain their eminent domain authority in Texas.
“It’s clearly not a philosophical problem with eminent domain because the power is still there for pipelines, power lines, any other railroad in the state of Texas,” Texas Central President Robert Eckels said in an interview last week. “So it’s not an issue that philosophical concerns are being made. It’s a narrow concern for a small number of communities along the route.” (Eckels is also a former chairman of the Texas High-Speed Rail and Transportation Corporation.)
Steinbach said Kolkhorst’s efforts against the Texas Central project, as well as her remark at last week’s hearing that she doesn’t want Texas to serve as a “guinea pig” for high-speed rail, should not be interpreted as her wholesale opposition to high-speed rail in Texas.
“Beyond the unknown impact of its eminent domain demands, this rail project would be among the first trains in the nation to be built on crash avoidance standards,” Steinbach said. “By using the term ‘guinea pig,’ Senator Kolkhorst is speaking of Texans being subjected to this experiment and what it means for both land fragmentation as well as public safety.”
Asked to respond, Texas Central emailed a statement explaining that the company shares Kolkhorst’s concerns for private property rights in Texas and has “gone to great lengths to openly negotiate in good faith with landowners to judiciously preserve the existing uses of private land to the greatest extent possible.
The company added, “Our project seeks to leverage private investors in the free-market to solve a critical public transportation challenge with a safe, proven technology that has a 50 year service record of zero accident-related injuries or fatalities, making it the safest mode of intercity transportation in the world."
Kolkhorst's bill is one of several filed this session aimed at impacting the Texas Central project. A bill from state Rep. Will Metcalf, R-Conroe, that would require the elected officials of every city and county along the route to approve the project is scheduled for a hearing before the House Transportation Committee next week.