Controversy Continues Regarding Possible Texas High-Speed Rail
A “David and Goliath fight” is how one opponent of the Texas Central high-speed rail project described the ongoing controversy.
Hurdles regarding Texas Central’s development plans for a high-speed rail project linking Dallas and Houston continue to appear.
Currently, the Federal Railroad Administration is drafting the environmental impact report on the proposed high-speed rail project. The draft will include the evaluation of potential high-speed rail corridor alternative, the potential impacts of power or fueling stations, and maintenance facilities to support high-speed rail operations.
Rebecca Cowle, Outreach manager of Texas Central, said the company anticipates the report to be released somewhere between mid to late 2016.
While the report is being completed, Texas Central and opposing groups for the project will continue their campaign efforts.
Texas Central, a privately funded Texas-based company announced the plans of a proposed $12 billion new high-speed passenger rail system in 2014. The bullet train system that Texas Central intends to build is a product of Central Japan Railway Company (JRC). JRC has been looking to take its high-tech products abroad for years, and this project is a chance to do so.
If built, the train will be the latest version of the Series N700-I Bullet train system that incorporates 50 years of Japanese train technology. The system that currently runs between Tokyo and Osaka, Japan features a 16-car system, but Texas Central anticipates an eight-car train with an estimated 400 seats for passengers
(Series N700-I Bullet Train – Photo Source: Houston Pulse Magazine)
The bullet train will travel at speeds over 200 miles per hour cutting the on-land travel time between Dallas and Houston from four hours to 90 minutes. The original proposal of the project was created to reduce the traffic between the two bustling cities.
According to a traffic and population study shared on Texas Central’s website, the travel time between Dallas and Houston is expected to increase to over 6.5 hours in the next 20 years.
Texas Central’s project may appeal to the 50,000+ “super-commuters” that travel Interstate 45 at least twice a week, but not all Texans are on board.
While residents in Dallas and Harris County are hopeful about the venture, a portion of private property owners, business owners and elected officials from around the state aren’t convinced that the high-speed rail system will be a success.
Although Texas Central stated that the rail system would be paid for entirely by private donors, Kyle Workman, director of Texans Against High Speed Rail, sees it differently.
“One of the two primary issues that everybody needs to understand is that [the project] will fail and it will be a taxpayers subsidy,” Workman said. “That message resonates with everybody who puts their brain in gear and decides ‘let’s really evaluate the ridership of a project like this in Texas.’”
Texans Against High Speed Rail (TAHSR) is an organization that was formed in early 2015 as a “coordinated state-wide effort to protect property, property rights and values” and their “way of life from the negative impacts of high-speed rail.”
Supporters of TAHSR include many Texans who live in communities between Houston and Dallas, as well as around the state.
Workman believes that TAHSR is not only not being heard, but also ignored by Texas Central.
“We’ve attended their meetings and have had discussions and tried to bring things out of them about their projects and frankly we can’t get it,” Workman said.
An article released last month by the Texas Tribune stated that Texas Central Partners “remains optimistic about its efforts to draw support for its project from rural communities.”
Although there have been many meetings and conversations regarding the different issues surrounding the project, Workman believes that Texas Central has kept TAHSR at arms length and attempt to keep the project moving forward.
A statement made by Texas Central in January said that the company “has growing support in the local communities as we continue our outreach through open houses and continued conversations with people.” The statement continued, “These conversations provided us an opportunity to answer questions and give real time updates.”
Workman refuted this claim.
“What they’re trying to do is demoralize the populous to believing that this is a done deal and there’s nothing they can do about it,” Workman said. “They have no intention of working with the land owners, they have no intention of sharing real data, because when we ask for those things they deny it. They’re saying we’re having a constructive conversation and everybody is changing their mind [about the project] and in reality that’s just a lie.”
Cowle, outreach manager of Texas Central, has a different take on the conversation.
“In 2015 alone we went out and spoke to 300 different clubs, organizations, community groups, city councils, commissioner courts, you name it,” Cowle said. “That was in 2015 alone, and we’re on pace for that same number for 2016.”
Cowle also explained that Texas Central has held 24 non-federally mandated meetings in order to stay open and transparent with landowners and stakeholders along the route.
At each of the meetings, Texas Central brought in sound and alignment engineers, contract land staff, and laptops with a geographic information system in place that those concerned with the route of the project could use to see whether or not their land would be affected.
“When you talk about going onto someone’s property, it’s deeply personal and can be really emotional,” said Cowle. “There are some landowners who do have reservations, but we are trying our hardest to work on this project and respect the landowner’s property.”
For now Texas Central plans to keep their momentum going.
“While we’re waiting on the environmental impact study, we’re still moving forward with a bunch of background engineering work, talking with investors, and working on the design and layout of the terminals and stations,” said Cowle. “We’ll also be conducting several meetings with landowners and stakeholder groups in both Dallas and Houston and along the corridor in between the cities.”
But what one side sees as momentum, the other side sees as more time to fight for what’s most important: their private property.
(Source: Texas Central)
The image above shows the proposed route for the high-speed rail project. It also gives a zoomed in view of all the Texas counties and cities in between Houston and Dallas that might be used: a stretch of rural land and communities inhabited by people like Workman.
“It’s not even really an urban versus rural issue—it’s really a private property rights issue,” Workman said.
According to TAHSR, one of its main goals is to “protect the rights of private property owners in Texas by promoting restrictions on private use of eminent domain.”
Eminent domain, or the government’s right to take peoples private property for public use, has been one of the issues at the forefront of the controversy. Question as to whether or not Texas Central has the power to invoke eminent domain has been relevant since the 2015 legislative session when State legislators tried and failed to take those rights away from Texas Central.
An article published by the Houston Press in early February, stated that U.S. Congressman Kevin Brady wrote a letter to nine state legislators asking whether or not Texas Central had the right to use eminent domain.
In the letter Congressman Brady wrote, “Taking property against a landowner’s will, especially land that may have been in the family for generations, is a serious matter.” He continued, “Because this is a state project, I am requesting your leadership in determining if Texas Central Partners has state eminent domain power. I question that it does.”
Without the power of eminent domain Texas Central will have a difficult time building the rail.
Eminent domain an issue that Cowle admits can be scary to landowners, believes there’s nothing new when it comes to infrastructure projects in Texas.
“There’s a long-routed history in the state of Texas of public and private projects utilizing the process of eminent domain to build infrastructure and it’s nothing new, nothing revolutionary,” Cowle said. “But the difference is most people are used to a pipeline or a highway coming through … and a high speed rail which is something that most people in Texas have never seen or experienced before firsthand, can be really scary.”
For now, Texas Central will continue moving forward with the project and those in opposition will continue their efforts against it. Only time, and the environmental impact report, will tell what comes next.