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Is Greg Abbott now an obstacle for Texas Central?

This Texas Monthly story suggests that maybe the answer to that question is Yes.

Earlier this year, after six years of legal battles brought by property owners and local governments, the rail project finally looked to be chugging along. Texas Central, the company behind it, had purchased six hundred parcels, or 40 percent of the land needed to build the project. In May, a victory at the Corpus Christi Court of Appeals asserted the business’s status as a railroad company with the power to exercise eminent domain—meaning that it can require owners to sell portions of their land in return for a “reasonable” price—though that ruling may be appealed to the state Supreme Court. This fall, the project received approval from the U.S. Department of Transportation’s Federal Railroad Administration, and Governor Greg Abbott wrote a letter to the Japanese government, a key investor in the project, voicing his support. The potential benefits of the rail seemed manifold. It would offer travelers a ninety-minute alternative to the four-hour drive between Dallas and Houston and relieve highway congestion that’s projected to double by 2035. It would reduce greenhouse gas emissions. And it would create thousands of high-paying jobs at a time when Texas is suffering from both a pandemic-related recession and an oil-price bust.

“The Texas High-Speed Train will be the first truly high-speed train in Texas and the United States, connecting North Texas, Houston and the Brazos Valley in less than 90 minutes, using the safest, most accessible, most efficient and environmentally friendly mass transportation system in the world today,” Texas Central spokesperson Erin Ragsdale wrote in a statement.

Abbott’s letter, however, sparked a firestorm among some of his longtime supporters. Even before the governor expressed support for the rail project, Meier said, her circle of friends had become increasingly wary of him because they believed he was pandering to liberal interests by imposing restrictions on some businesses during the early days of the pandemic. “I was the only one I know of that was still basically supporting him,” Meier said. “If he continues to support the [train], he will not get my vote, and I will passionately spread the word.”

Four days after Abbott penned his letter, his staff walked back his support, telling the Dallas Morning News that the governor intended to reevaluate his position out of concern for Texans’ property rights and because he was provided with “incomplete” information about the project. (His initial letter had indicated the railway had already obtained all the necessary permits to proceed, but, in fact, it still needs to receive approval from the Surface Transportation Board, a federal regulatory agency.) Abbott’s office did not make clear whether staff, pro-rail lobbyists, or another party had provided the information that allegedly misled him, nor did it respond to multiple requests for an interview about why he wrote the letter and later walked it back. Texas Central also declined multiple requests for interview about Abbott’s reversal. With the loss of the governor’s support, the train’s future faces new hurdles. Texas Central now lacks a strong advocate to ward against pending anti-high-speed rail bills in the upcoming Legislative session, and the company has lost a prominent voice asking investors to keep money flowing.

See here for the background. It’s hard to know what Abbott is thinking, but what is clear is that the strongest opposition to TCR comes from rural Republicans, who are the base of the party. While I think that on a philosophical level this project likely appeals to Abbott – indeed, TCR was designed from the beginning to appeal to Republicans, with its private-enterprise, no-government-funding ethos, and with Republican stalwarts like Robert Eckels among its leadership – he is for sure aware of which way the wind is blowing, and after a summer of vitriol from the wingnut faction he’s probably wary of starting another fight. What that means in terms of the upcoming legislative session is unclear, but we already know that TCR was playing defense. They may be facing a more potent offense than originally expected.

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19 Comments

  1. Jules says:

    “ It’s hard to know what Abbott is thinking” – my guess is “who the hell leaked my letter!”

    SCOTX has asked for further info on the eminent domain appeal, I don’t know if they have decided to take the case or not yet. But if Texas Central can’t get eminent domain, they can’t construct.

    “TCR was designed from the beginning to appeal to Republicans, with its private-enterprise, no-government-funding ethos”. They have always said they will take tax money, at first they said they would not take gvt grants for construction. But now Aguilar has said he was seeking federal stimulus dollars from trump. No doubt they will seek all the gvt money from the Biden administration. At first they said they would not seek subsidies for operations, who knows now.

    But they have always sought other government money, don’t be surprised when both Houston and Dallas bring forward tax abatements for Texas Central.

  2. David Fagan says:

    “a victory at the Corpus Christi Court of Appeals” Far from the local Texans who are getting their livelihoods stolen from them at “fair” prices.

  3. David Fagan says:

    From their website. ” will offer a total travel time of less than 90 minutes, with convenient departures every 30 minutes”

    Sounds a little ‘pie in the sky’ for me. There would have to be 4 trains running each direction to maintain this, and that has to be profitable. There’s that many people commuting between Dallas and Houston?

    Also, in this day of Zoom meetings, their numbers justifying this construction has got to be different than when this project started out.

  4. Manny says:

    I don’t believe their is a profitable passenger train in the US

  5. Manny says:

    There

  6. Jules says:

    Manny, you are right, there isn’t. There were 2 profitable HSRs in the world , one piece of Japan’s system and one in Europe somewhere. The proposed Texas Central system’s ridiculously jacked up ridership is only a few weeks worth of riders for the Japanese section -pre-pandemic. I wonder if either of the profitable ones still are.

    David, yes, they need to redo their ridership numbers not only due to Covid, but because their numbers make no sense. The FRA needs to use a public ridership study for emissions calculations.

  7. Tory says:

    Texas Central high-speed rail is now looking for federal loan guarantees 🙁

    “To repay $30 billion in loans, 6m annual riders would have to pay $255 a ticket on top of whatever it costs to operate the trains.”

    Compare that to typical Dallas-Houston airfares of around $100, and the math does not look good at all…

    http://ti.org/antiplanner/?p=17759

  8. Bill Daniels says:

    I thought leftists were all about mass transit and forcing people out of their cars. If the worst happens, and the election fraud stands, and Biden is inaugurated, what do y’all think Biden’s focus is going to be on? Fixing and widening our highways? Fixing I-45 downtown? Or will it be building trains, like this proposed train, and the one in California that was proposed? If you all will recall, there was a bunch of taxpayer money spent on a California high speed train project that was finally scrapped, but not before the taxpayers were fleeced.

    This Houston-Dallas train is exactly the kind of thing you folks voted for, and now you’re upset about it?

  9. Jules says:

    The trump administration approved tax free bonds for the proposed Victorville-Vegas HSR. The Obama administration had previously declined because the trains wouldn’t be built in the US.

    Hopefully the Biden administration will be made aware that the proposed Houston-Dallas HSR will be an environmental disaster that will never overcome the energy spent for construction. And continue to follow Made In America rules, and not spend tax dollars whimsically to benefit the person in the Oval office.

    https://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2020/10/09/us/donald-trump-taxes-las-vegas.html

  10. Jules says:

    Tory, exactly. And Texas Central’s ridership numbers are greatly exaggerated, and now with Covid, they are super greatly exaggerated. Reason Foundation estimated less than 1.5 million passengers per year for 2035.

  11. Manny says:

    Did not realize that fascists and racist like Bill, cared what people like me thought. Then again his sidearm caliber is probably higher than his IQ.

  12. Jules says:

    Tory, just ran across this: $29 airfare, Dallas – Houston and also this:

    “ Southwest recently got some new competition from JSX, an “affordable” hop-on jet service that flies from its home base of Dallas Love Field to Houston for $99.” Basically a private jet for $99 – you only need to be there 20 mins before.

    https://fortworth.culturemap.com/news/travel/12-14-20-southwest-airlines-love-field-bush-houston-fares-29-dollars/

  13. mollusk says:

    Southwest’s $29 fare is a promotion to draw attention to its new service out of IAH. The number isn’t random – it’s what their HOU-DAL fare was back when they were starting up and a lot of Hobby’s parking was on the apron (which was exceptionally convenient).

  14. Jules says:

    mollusk, thanks for the info on why they picked $29. Wonder what kind of promos SWA will be able to offer if the HSR does ever get built?

    I think the more interesting thing was the $99 private jet option.

  15. C.L. says:

    There’s roughly 90 flights a day between the HOU and the DFW airports. Assuming an avg of 30 folks/flight, that’s 81K people between the two cities every month. It would take a marketing blunder of biblical proportions to not siphon off travelers from that base.

  16. Jules says:

    CL, assuming your numbers are correct, and Texas Central gets all of the flyers, that’s still less than a million passengers per year.

    In other HSR systems, the majority of the passengers transfer from conventional rail, which we don’t even have.

    Texas Central is claiming that 60-99% of car travelers will switch to HSR. That’s not gonna happen. Their whole business model is based on a lie.

    https://reason.org/wp-content/uploads/texas-high-speed-rail-plan-requires-caution.pdf

  17. Bill Daniels says:

    Different train, Jules. I was referring to this California boondoggle:

    https://www.cnbc.com/2019/05/16/trump-administration-pulls-california-high-speed-rail-funding.html

  18. Bill Daniels says:

    Edit: Your link looks like it has to do with muh Trump taxes, not rail, but it’s behind a paywall, so if there’s anything pertinent about trains, you might want to quote it for the peanut gallery here.

  19. Madison says:

    In Germany and Japan, cities and towns are very crowded together. In most cities, you can realistically walk from anywhere in town to the train station, with no logistical problems. Thus walking to the train station, taking a train, and walking to your destination is a pleasant way to travel. In some cases, you could bring your bike, and everything will work out just fine.

    No imagine doing the same thing between Dallas and Houston. Both Cities are horrendously huge, not just population, but geographically large. To walk from the West side of Beltway 8 to the other side of Beltway 8 in Houston, is 25 miles straight thru Houston. Logistically, that is unfeasible…leave your car in HOuston, take a train to Dallas, and then have to go another 25-40 miles to your destination, which is still in “Dallas”. There is a reason people prefer to drive than fly. The check in process, the flight, renting a vehicle, and driving to your destination from the airport, takes just as much time as driving there in your own vehicle, with a couple stops along the way.

    I do think a train would be cool, but I don’t think the people running the company understand the local conditions on the ground, and believe that the fundamental assumptions that make rail work in Japan or Germany, exist in Texas.