A proposed high-speed rail line connecting Dallas to Houston has encountered its first organized opposition, and it’s coming from a politically active group that formed more than six years ago to fight the then-proposed Trans Texas Corridor.
The Sam Houston Tea Party, which includes more than 400 active members throughout rural Southeast Texas, showed up in force this week during a public meeting in Huntsville to oppose the 205 mph bullet trains. Many of the members, although they didn’t necessarily identify themselves by party affiliation, spoke against the proposal by Texas Central Railway to connect the state’s two largest metro areas, using Japanese rail technology.
Some residents of Grimes County, who live along one of the proposed routes for the futuristic passenger trains, also spoke during the meeting and complained that they weren’t made aware of the meeting until hours before it began in a neighboring county.
The meeting was scheduled to give residents a look at updated maps showing where the Texas Central Railway could operate beginning in 2021 and give people who live or own property along the proposed routes the chance to ask questions or express concerns. The project is believed to be a crucial first step in building a bullet train system that will eventually connect not only Houston and Dallas, but also Arlington, Fort Worth and Austin.
Supporters say the Dallas-to-Houston project, which could cost more than $10 billion, would be privately funded and would be built mostly on existing railroad, highway or utility right-of-way. Even so, some private property would need to be bought for the project, and opponents say they don’t support the use of their land for a project that won’t directly benefit their local areas.
Sam Houston Tea Party representative Linda Thompson, who spoke during the public meeting in Huntsville, said afterward that the project reminded her of the Trans Texas Corridor, an ambitious plan in the 2000s by Gov. Rick Perry to build a statewide network of toll roads, rail lines and utility corridors. The Trans Texas Corridor was fought by residents who opposed the taking of private land for such a lofty project, and was also opposed by groups such as the Texas Farm Bureau.
Ultimately, the Texas Department of Transportation abandoned its Trans Texas Corridor planning efforts.
“We’re putting in a rail line that’s going to serve the city dwellers,” Thompson said in a phone interview. “It doesn’t appear that, other than during the construction phase, there will be any jobs for the rural areas going forward.”
A federal environmental review of the proposed rail line, which would provide service from downtown Dallas to Houston in roughly 90 minutes, began earlier this year. The study is being paid for by Texas Central Railway.
One of the purposes of a series of public meetings held during the past two weeks is to give residents their first look at maps showing two proposed alternatives for building the rail line. Both alternatives call for the rail line to extend southeast from downtown Dallas on a path roughly parallel to Interstate 45, about midway between Waxahachie and Ennis. The trains would then use a combination of rail and utility right-of-way, winding along rural areas west of Corsicana, Teague and Huntsville then entering the Houston metro area near either Cypress or Tomball.
The proposal includes the possibility of a lone passenger stop between Dallas and Houston, near the tiny community of Shiro, about halfway between Huntsville and College Station. Shuttles would be available for those communities to reach the line.
Officials at Texas Central Railway say they aren’t alarmed by any mounting opposition to their proposal, said spokesman Travis Kelly.
“We expected there were some concerns from landowners,” Kelly said. “That's why from the very beginning we sought to identify an alignment that followed or shared right-of-way as much as possible. For the most part I think folks appreciate and understand the nature of this.”
More than 100 miles of the proposed roughly 240-mile corridor would be built on elevated track, to keep the trains out of the way of personal and business trips and agricultural work in nearby communities, Kelly added.
Also, project designers say steps would be taken to reduce the impact of any sections that were built at ground level. For example, tracks could be fenced to prevent animals or pedestrians from crossing into a locomotive’s path.
But despite those plans, many residents say they still don’t want the bullet trains.
Thompson, who lives in Walker County, said she and many residents of nearby Grimes County were offended at the assertion by project supporters during the public meeting that their area was chosen for a high-speed rail route because it is “flat and undeveloped.”
“These communities … produce the goods, both food and cloth, and everything else that services the world,” she said. “To make light of our flat land by saying it’s undeveloped is criminal.”
John Botkin, who lives within “earshot” of a proposed route, said he knows of two Grimes County commissioners who weren’t notified of the public meeting in Huntsville and only found out about it through word-of-mouth.
“The real disappointment is there was no real official announcement of it here,” Botkin said.
Touting the benefits
Supporters say they hope skeptical residents will keep an open mind about the project, which offers potentially huge economic benefits with a relatively small public investment.
Bill Meadows of Fort Worth is chairman of a state commission studying how to possibly take the northern terminus of the Texas Central Railway’s project in Dallas and extend it to Arlington, Fort Worth and possibly Austin. Although the portion of the proposed high-speed rail line from Dallas to Houston could be built entirely with private funding, the extension of the line to the other Texas cities likely will require public funding, numerous officials have said.
The North Central Texas Council of Governments in particular is helping to identify potential funding sources to build possible high-speed rail stations near Arlington’s entertainment district, as well as downtown Fort Worth.
Meadows recently returned from a tour of Japan’s Tokyo-to-Osaka rail line. Technology used by the company that controls that line, Central Japan Railway Co., would be used in Texas — and that company could also be an investor.
Meadows, who said he paid his own way to Japan, was impressed not only with the railway’s speed and on-time record, but its emphasis on safety. The company, also known as JR Central, operates out of a sophisticated command center that makes it possible for trains — which are traveling so fast they need as much as two miles to stop — to quickly cease operations in the event of an emergency such as an earthquake without running into each other.
He sees high-speed rail being a viable option between metro areas 200 to 500 miles apart.
“I don’t think you connect Washington, D.C., with L.A. The distances are too great,” Meadows said. “You’re going to see high-speed rail technology deployed in certain types of corridors connecting city pairs — Houston to Dallas, Fort Worth to Austin. You’re going to see over time, as that technology is deployed, more and more people are going to use the trains. But for DFW to Chicago, it’s 800 miles, and most people are going to take a jet.”