Just over a year ago, the mayors of Dallas and Houston announced their support for a proposed privately funded bullet train that would travel between the two cities in less than 90 minutes.
At the time, many elected officials and residents in rural communities near the train's potential routes were just beginning to learn about Texas Central Railway’s $12 billion project. As they heard more, they grew more worried.
Now, those rural critics have banded together, pooling resources, hiring lobbyists and trying to build alliances with enough urban lawmakers to kill the project.
“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.
The current political skirmish mirrors a fight 25 years ago, when French firm TGV wanted to build a privately funded high-speed rail line between Dallas and Houston and later expand it to Austin and San Antonio. Groups called DERAIL and Citizens Against the Bullet Train formed to harness the opposition from people who lived along the proposed routes but far from stations. State officials received petitions with thousands of signatures opposing the “Texas Supertrain.”
Some of the biggest concerns from rural opponents now echo protests from back then — fears that the train will ultimately need public subsidies to operate, and discomfort with a private company’s plans to use eminent domain if needed to secure land for its tracks.
Ultimately, the TGV project failed because the company could not raise capital for the project fast enough, though some involved at the time believe Southwest Airlines’ aggressive campaign against it played a role. Texas Central has repeatedly expressed confidence that it will draw enough private investment to fund its project. The company has vowed it will not need any operating subsidies, though it has not ruled out tax-exempt federal construction loans to finance a portion of the project.
Southwest Airlines, which has not taken a position on the latest bullet train proposal, has had no interaction with Texans Against High-Speed Rail, according to representatives with both the airline and the group.
“We are not part of any group working this matter, and we have not contributed money to any person or organization involved,” Southwest spokesman Chris Mainz said. “To date, there is insufficient information about a rumored Texas high-speed rail proposal to support any reasoned evaluation and informed decision.”
Workman said the group’s funding has come entirely from individuals, most living or owning land near the train’s expected route.
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.
Disclosure: Texas Central Railway, Southwest Airlines and the Texas and Southwestern Cattle Raisers Association are corporate sponsors of The Texas Tribune. A complete list of Tribune donors and sponsors can be viewed here.