As House and Senate leaders get closer to crafting a $210 billion 2016-17 budget, intense negotiations have emerged over two sentences that could kill a $12 billion Dallas-to-Houston bullet train project.
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.”
Public officials in both Houston and Dallas have come out in support of Texas Central’s project. Since the summer, opposition has emerged in rural communities along the route. Concerns have largely focused on how the train and its stand-alone track system will impact communities and the company’s ability to use eminent domain to condemn land for the project if needed.
Texas Central has said it hopes to begin construction of the project in late 2016, with the train beginning operations in 2021.
In both the House and Senate, lawmakers have filed bills to stop the project in its tracks or at least hobble it. So far, none of the bills has come up for votes in either chamber. Texas Central and its supporters have argued that the measures unfairly single out the company’s project because it will go faster than other private trains around the state.
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.
“The proposal in Rider 48 is a common sense way for TxDOT to help protect Texas taxpayers and Texas landowners,” the form letter reads. “Please support a rider to the Texas budget that clarifies TxDOT will not participate in a privately funded high-speed rail project in Texas.”
Supporters of the train are rallying their side as well to get the rider removed.
“If this rider stays in the final compromise House-Senate budget bill, HIGH SPEED RAIL will be DEAD,” Peter LeCody, president of Texas Rail Advocates, an advocacy group, wrote in an email to supporters.
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.”