Texas landowners opposed to a high-speed train line between Dallas and Houston took to the Capitol Thursday and early Friday to warn lawmakers that the project would ruin rural lifestyles and prevent growth in the counties between the two cities.
“The spectre of high-speed rail is like a dark cloud over us,” Becky Scasta, who has an Ellis County farmhouse, testified at a Texas House Transportation Committee hearing on four bullet train bills. “It makes us think twice about doing something to our land or home.”
The "dark cloud" is the multibillion dollar project Texas Central has been developing for several years – a 240-mile bullet train line that promises to shuttle passengers between between downtown Dallas and northwest Houston in 90 minutes on train cars that travel 205 mph. The company promises to get the $12 billion project done without taking public dollars other than through loans. Though the company has drawn support from investors, federal officials and officials representing the cities at each end of its route, the project has drawn intense opposition from some of the communities in between.
During the last legislative session in 2015, lawmakers opposed to the project tried unsuccessfully to strip the company of its eminent domain authority or block state agencies from helping developers of the project, either of which would have killed the project, firm officials said at the time.
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.
Texas Central executives and elected officials say that connecting two of the regions fueling Texas’ jobs and population growth with a landmark transportation project will spur more economic development and activity. But between those two cities are thousands of parcels of Texas land, much of which is owned by ranchers and farmers who believe a rail line will only bisect their properties and ruin their rural way of life. Bullet train supporters and opponents have argued for months over whether Texas Central has such a right to force landowners to sell it the land needed to place train tracks.
The company also vows that its project will help increase tax revenue for scores of cities, counties and school districts along the route. But the libertarian Reason Foundation predicted earlier this year that Texas Central would leave taxpayers on the hook for billions of dollars because the project won’t be profitable. Opponents and some lawmakers have pointed to that study as a warning sign about how the project will turn out.
The company has argued that the foundation used flawed methodology, calling the TxDOT data it relied upon outdated. Texas Central officials say they have spent millions on research that shows there is future passenger demand not reflected in the Reason study.
Backstop or obstacle?
House Bill 2167 would prevent the state from spending any money on a privately owned high-speed rail project until it secured an interest in or lien on the operating company’s property or other assets.
“I call this the ‘Put Texas First’ bill,” said state Rep. Leighton Schubert, R-Brenham, who wrote the legislation.
Project supporters said that bill would also dissuade potential investors from contributing to the project. Theresa Rodriguez, president of the Bay Area Houston Transportation Partnership, said the bill makes it sound like the state intends to eventually take over the project.
“Which makes it seem like more of an obstacle to investment than an invitation to investment,” she testified.
That didn’t sway opponents like Ronnie Caldwell, an Ellis County landowner who said the project would run right through property he owns.
“If it’s not going to fail in their eyes, I don’t see why they would object to this bill,” he said.
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.”
Read our recent series on the proposed Texas bullet train:
Disclosure: Texas Central Partners and Chris Lippincott have been financial supporters of The Texas Tribune. A complete list of Tribune donors and sponsors can be viewed here.