Bill to slow high speed rail moves forward

There was a show down in the state legislature today over a proposed high speed rail project. A private investment group wants to build a bullet train that could zip passengers between Dallas and Houston in 90 minutes. But landowners along the proposed route have convinced some state lawmakers that the idea is a land grab.

High speed trains are a common sight in Europe and Asia. Supporters of a proposal to build a similar rail line through east Texas were under the capitol dome Wednesday trying to keep it from being derailed. Members of the Senate Transportation Committee held a hearing on a cluster of bills that could slow down the bullet train project by Texas Central Partners

"As we begin to take land from people and create a new mode of transportation we better make sure we are able to connect and not have an albatross out there,” said State Senator Lois Kolkhorst ( R ) Brenham.

In response to that concern, Fred Weiderhold a consultant with Texas Central said every transportation project tries to take as little Right of Way as possible and tries to limit the project’s foot print.

The hearing was on 5 bills.

  • SB 975        Birdwell
    • Relating to the security of high-speed rail operated by a private entity.
  • SB 977        Schwertner
    • Relating to the use of state money for high-speed rail operated by a private entity.
  • SB 979        Schwertner          
    • Relating to the acquisition and disposition of real property intended for high-speed rail projects.
  • SB 980        Schwertner          
    • Relating to state money or credit or a state guarantee used or provided for high-speed rail owned by a private entity.
  • SB 981        Kolkhorst           
    • Relating to the compatibility of a high-speed rail facility with multiple types of train technology.

The legislation prevents state money from being used on private rail projects, increases security measures, prohibits the use of eminent domain to acquire land by a private rail road, and requires train technology to be compatible with other providers.

"So some aspects of some of those bills could be talked about in certain context, but as an envelope they talk about trying to prevent a project that moves Texas forward,” said Tim Keith President of Texas Central.

Officials with Texas Central stress they will not be using any state money to build the rail line.  FOX7 was also told about half of the route is on public right of way and that the company has already acquired the rights to 30% of the private land that it will need.

All 5 Bills were moved out of the committee and are be scheduled for consideration by the full Senate. After the vote, Texas Central issued the following statement;

“Texans want a high-speed train to help meet the growing state’s transportation demands, and we are concerned about any legislation that stops that effort. We are asking to be treated like any other company investing in Texas, creating thousands of jobs and building a major infrastructure project – all without taking government grants. We need to keep Texas open for business and attractive to entrepreneurs willing to invest in the state’s future.”

The Senate Transportation committee vote comes with at least a year left in the permitting process. Dates for ground breaking and completion have not yet been set, but it was revealed that nearly half of the route is to be elevated. That’s in order to appease landowners who have voiced opposition.

"There are people who cannot sleep at night in my county,” said Grimes County Judge Ben Leman told lawmakers there are people in his county who are so worried about the project they cannot sleep at night.

“You can’t sell it, you can’t move I’ve had many people that have had contracts on the table and then when they learn about this high speed rail project, they can’t sell the property so they are absolutely losing sleep over this project,” said Judge Leman.

Kyle Workman, with Texans against High Speed Rail warned lawmakers that he believes the project will not work.

"From our stand point it’s also an issue of too big to fail, and so we need to make sure we also preparing for a move to try to bail it out,” said Workman. 

Officials with Texas Central expressed concern the Bills could prevent them from working with TX DOT on design and environmental studies. While the motivation for the legislation appears to be the Houston to Dallas project, there may be also an unintended ripple effect. Rail advocates warned lawmakers the action could impact future projects for cities like Austin, San Antonio and El Paso.

"We don’t want to close doors to innovation and investment from all over the world that can solve traffic problems here in Austin and san Antonio getting cars off I-35 and getting people safely to where they need to go," said Chris Lippincott  with Texas Rail Advocates.

For now the rail options in Texas are limited to a few commuter rails and Amtrak.

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