In the Texas Tribute today, erstwhile (and much-missed) Dallas Morning News transportation writer Brandon Formby has an extended report on the current status of Texas’ high-speed rail project. If you’ve been following the bullet train story, there’s isn’t a tremendous amount of news in the piece. Houston and Dallas want to connect their booming metropolitan areas with a high-speed rail line that would suture together the cities, creating a 90-minute-travel-time lifeline between Dallas and the Texas port, catalyzing the development of a mega-region that could compete globally with some of the worlds’ biggest markets. The cherry on top: the whole project is being funded by private investors without any need for taxpayers to pony-up dough for a big infrastructure project.
It sounds like a slam dunk, especially in Texas, which, in spite of its growing political divides, still greatly prizes private investment, economic growth, and expanding trade.
Or is it?
As Formby reports, in spite of its economic promise, the high-speed rail project pits two of Texas’ core values against each other: economic opportunity and the rights of private property owners. Formby takes us down to Grimes County to show how this drama plays out on at a human scale:
Three mornings a week, though, [John] Stoneham still tosses 50-pound feed bags onto the bed of a mud-caked pickup like they weigh half that. Then he steers the truck around soggy patches on the Grimes County farm his family has owned for almost 150 years and fills the cows’ troughs.
“I like raising cattle — I enjoy it,” he said, taking shelter from an approaching downpour in a cluttered shed. “It’s just something I’ve always done, it’s something I know and something I’ll continue to do.”
The farms and homesteads in Grimes County blanket open land that for now is beyond the reach of Houston’s sprawling outer suburbs. The economic momentum and booming population growth that have transformed the state’s largest metro areas are distant phenomena in this and other rural Texas counties.
But all that could change if the bullet train comes barreling through.
Stoneham’s ranch is among thousands of parcels of Texas land that could one day be home to America’s first high-speed rail line. It’s also the site of a likely collision between two of the state’s most dearly held principles: Texans’ right to do what they want with their property and the free market’s ability to solve thorny problems with little government interference.
The outcomes could affect Texans for generations.
It is because of the concerns of people like Stoneham that a number of state legislators who represent the rural counties the bullet train will pass through have introduced a series of bills this legislative session seemingly intended to derail the project. As the Fort Worth Star-Telegram points out in an editorial published on its website yesterday, some of the bills that have been introduced merely make the road more bumpy for the high-speed rail project’s approval — for example, explicitly forbidding the use of state funds, tightening security measures for screening rail passengers, and requiring TxDOT to conduct a feasibility study on the rail project. But others may prove more difficult to dodge:
SB 981 would require that Texas Central demonstrate its line’s compatibility with more than one type of train technology. Texas Central’s planned Japanese technology is not compatible with those from other countries.
And then there’s SB 973, a rattlesnake in disguise. It would bar survey crews from entering private property to mark it for a high-speed rail line unless the Texas Department of Transportation declares that the project fits the definition of a railroad.
To do that, TxDOT would be saying Texas Central can use eminent domain to take the land it needs. Few topics are as politically sensitive in Texas as taking private land, especially for use by a private entity.
That puts TxDOT in the center of this battle.
These are clearly efforts to stymie the project, particularly the clever political maneuvering that would bring the political apparatus of TxDOT directly into the mix with regards to approving any future rail project. To say that, historically, TxDOT has not been a friend of public transportation is an understatement. After all, TxDOT’s $15 billion budget request this year only includes $100 million for transit, or 0.6 percent.
But the bills are also intended to do what democracy does, namely, attempt to protect the interests of those citizens whose rights still matter even if they stand in the way of monumental economic progress or are threatened by shifting cultural and historic forces. Here’s more from Formby:
That puts people like Stoneham in a tough spot. He wants to pass his land on to his kids — but, he noted, “kids these days don’t seem to want to work out here.”
Stoneham said Texas Central offered him about $900,000 for the roughly 50 acres of his land the company would need — “way too low.”
He thinks his son might be interested in leasing it out to someone else who thinks they can make money running cattle. And one of his grandkids, at least, loves visiting.
He stopped the truck on a small hill, looking out past the tall transmission towers placed on the land decades before, after his father gave a power company easements. Stoneham was working with an architect to build a little house there, where he could live out his days among the cows.
But the house is on hold. It would be right in the bullet train’s path.