The Texas bullet train supposedly would blur through East Texas at over 200 mph. If it can get through the Texas Legislature first.
Five bills looking to constrain the Houston-to-Dallas high-speed train’s impact on taxpayers and landowners — and potentially kill the venture — flew Wednesday through the Senate Transportation Committee on a series of 7-0 and 6-1 votes. Two of the measures, including Senate Bill 979 by state Sen. Charles Schwertner, R-Georgetown, to ban use of eminent domain by the project, will go on the Senate’s sure-to-pass “local and uncontested” calender of bills.
Another bill that passed the committee Wednesday, Senate Bill 981, from state Sen. Lois Kolkhorst, R-Brenham, would mandate that any high-speed rail in Texas would have to be built in such a way as to be compatible “with more than one type of rail technology.”
The primary backer of the Texas Central Railway, a 240-mile line that would be traversed in less than 90 minutes, is a Japanese high-speed rail company that would provide the trains and technology. Kolkhorst contended that what would be built would be unique to that one company and thus create a “perpetual monopoly” if the system were to expand elsewhere in Texas or beyond state borders.
Final passage of Kolkhorst’s bill thus would almost certainly end the project.
Senate Bill 977, also by Schwertner, would make explicit that no state funds, other than regulatory expenses by the Texas Department of Transportation already required in state law, would be spent on a private rail project. Officials with Texas Central Railway have said they wouldn’t ask for state help in either building the project or operating it later on.
“Let them put their money where their mouth is,” Schwertner said.
Tim Keith, president of Texas Central Partners later said he opposed SB 977, along with the other four bills heard Wednesday.
As for Kolkhorst’s bill, Keith pointed out that its rails would be spaced identically to other freight and passenger trains in Texas — 4 feet, 8 1/2 inches apart. But two French rail engineers, flown in for the occasion by opponents, said that virtually everything else about the design would make it impossible for existing European or U.S. companies to participate, driving up costs.
The cars, for instance, are about a foot wider than normal passenger cars, said Alain Leray, president of SNCF America Inc. (a subsidiary of a French rail company), meaning it must use specially designed station platforms.
And the Japanese rail cars, he said, aren’t built to sufficient crashworthiness standards, meaning that they couldn’t run on existing American rail lines where they might collide with cars at crossings or even other trains.
Texas Central, however, plans to run the trains on one-way tracks that will serve only the bullet train.
The project, still under environmental review, would cost $12 billion to $18 billion, according to a TxDOT study. The company says it can raise that money from private investors and, potentially, from U.S. Transportation Department infrastructure loans.
Uncle Sam was left holding the bag in another Texas mega-transportation project involving a private operator. The U.S. transportation agency lent almost $500 million to the developers of the southern 40 miles of the Texas 130 tollway, which has had much lighter traffic than expected and went into bankruptcy last year.
Despite the political realities in Austin that have undermined high-speed rail in Texas for years, some proponents claimed President Donald Trump’s support for such a project had brought it closer to reality. In fact, developers nationwide said they are looking to the Texas Central Railway as a test case of what can get done with Trump in the White House.
Former Houston Astros owner Drayton McLane Jr., a member of the company’s board of directors, met recently with Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao in Washington, D.C. He wasn’t seeking any of the taxpayer-funded grants sought by high-speed rail projects in California and the Northeast.
What the $10 billion Texas Central Railway really needs is a green light from the agency Chao oversees.
“It was an opportunity to make a first impression,” said Tim Keith, president of Texas Central Railway.
The meeting clearly stuck. Soon after, Chao mentioned the Texas Central Railway at the National Governors Association winter conference as an example of the kind of “very impressive” project the administration is interested in.
This report contains material from the McClatchy Washington Bureau.