A high-speed rail stop sounded like just the type of shot in the arm Ellis County needed. Development would flock to the station and, with a quick link to both Dallas and Houston, immediately make the county a much more attractive place for a high-powered company to do business. “We went, ‘Hey, this is great! High-speed rail!’” [instigator Marty] Hiles recalls thinking as he walked into a public meeting last year in Waxahachie with officials from Texas Central, TxDOT, and the Federal Railroad Administration. Then, they saw the plans and realized that there would be no local stop; for the train, Ellis County would be flyover country. “We walked away stunned,” Hiles says. “Just completely stunned. It was obvious there was nothing, no benefit at all.”
From that point forward Hiles and his group, which they dubbed Texas Concerned Citizens, shifted their energies from promoting economic development to killing high-speed rail — objectives that in their mind are one and the same. Texas Central, which has settled on a single preferred “utility corridor” route that shadows high-voltage power lines, maintains publicly that the line’s design will include as many underpasses as needed to accommodate the free flow of goods, wildlife and farm equipment, minimizing any negative impact, but Hiles and many others in Ellis County are skeptical. To turn a profit, the company will need to minimize capital costs; since elevating the tracks to allow traffic to pass underneath is more expensive than the default design of an impassable 14-foot berm closed in by a security fence, the residents fear that Texas Central will build as few elevated sections tracks as it can get away with. The most immediate impact will be on farmers, who, Hiles says, contribute $160 million to the Ellis County economy.
Hiles was on the brink of despair when, talking to Texas Central opponents near Houston, he learned of an obscure provision of state law enabling municipal and county governments to band together in “sub-regional planning commissions” that have the legal standing of state agencies. Essentially, Hiles learned, the law gave commissions the power to force Texas Central and TxDOT to sit down at the negotiating table to talk as equals. Several of the commissions had been formed to stop the Trans-Texas Corridor, a massive conglomeration of toll roads, rails and utility lines proposed just over a decade ago by then-Governor Rick Perry, and claimed at least partial credit for the project’s demise.
Hiles pitched the idea to the city councils of Palmer (population 2,000), Ferris (2,436), and Ennis (18,513), all of which are in or near the rail’s path. Each readily passed a resolution agreeing to join the Community Development Sub-Regional Planning Commission. “We’re just trying to be recognized,” says Palmer Mayor Kenneth Bateman, the owner of Bug Out Pest Control. “Doing what we’ve done is supposed to give us a voice as to what’s going around in our town.” Ennis Mayor Russell Thomas says the goal “is to force full disclosure. When you do that [form a sub-regional planning commission], then they are bound to actually have to show you what the plans
and details actually are.”
The commission has had one meeting so far. “We’re just beginning to assert our authority,” Hiles says. “The big fear a lot of the people have is … they’re either going to ignore us — if they do we’re going to go to the DA, say look we’re a state agency and they’re not working with us. We’ll force it if we have to. Or they might turn around and really start harassing us and sic the dogs on us, and that’s why I’m trying to find a good attorney who will cover us pro bono. Because if they come after us, I’m not ready to quit. We’ve all put our life and fortunes, like the Founding Fathers, really, on the line here because we’re trying to protect what we have.”
Basically, they’re doing what the folks in Montgomery County and Magnolia have done. As the story notes, there are questions about what actual authority these groups have – as is often the case with the Legislature, the intent of the law in question is unclear, and no one has ever done anything like this before. Be that as it may, it is a way for opponents to get together and bring in other communities, especially ones that may not have given the matter much thought before. Numbers matter, whatever the form of the organization. Texas Central Railway needs to take this seriously, or they could find that the strength of the opposition in the Lege in 2017 is bigger than they can handle.