Seems unlikely at this point, but I wouldn’t count them out.
“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.
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.
See here for the background. Let’s assume neither the Metcalf bill nor the Kolkhorst bill gets passed in any form. If that happens, then it’s a question of how far along Texas Central can get on the federal EIS process by 2017, and whether they can do anything to blunt the opposition by then. There’s also the possibility of litigation, and given the shenanigans that light rail opponents in Houston trotted out, all sorts of delay and distract potential. So overall I’d say Workman is right that this fight will still be going on in the next session, but there’s a wide range of possible places for each side to be when that next session gavels in. Finally, keep an eye on Southwest Airlines and what if any position they take in this debate. They may or may not get involved, but if they do it could have a significant effect.