We're used to seeing votes fall along party lines out at the biennial circus we call the Texas Legislature. But in a Senate Transportation Committee hearing Wednesday, a bill that would effectively stall the project to build a high-speed train connecting Houston and Dallas split largely along urban/rural lines.
Senate Bill 1601, authored by Brenham Republican Sen. Lois Kolkhorst, would specifically deny firms developing high-speed rail projects from using eminent domain -- the process by which government or businesses can force property owners to sell their land for projects that (ostensibly, at least) benefit the public. However, judging by Kolkhorst's narrowly-tailored bill and her comments in Wednesday's hearing, her bill has little to do with actually reforming how private companies wield eminent domain in Texas and rather stems from her flat-out opposition to high-speed rail.
"While I think in some countries it has worked, I just don't see a whole lot of high-speed rail across the United States," she said Wednesday. "I just don't see it, and I'm not sure I want Texas to be the guinea pig on this."
Kolkhorst's bill passed out of committee on a 5-4 vote. Kolkhorst was joined by three other Republicans, all whom come from rural districts that don't sit in the path of the proposed bullet train, who voted for the bill (Kelly Hancock of North Richland Hills, a Fort Worth suburb, provided the fifth vote in favor of Kolkhorst's bill). Two Dallas-area Republicans and two Houston Democrats voted against the measure.
While Kolkhorst's bill is the first to advance out of committee and on to the full senate, it isn't the only measure filed this session targeting the $10 billion project by Texas Central Railway, a private company that's working with a Japanese train manufacturer to build a bullet train to whisk travelers from Houston to Dallas in 90 minutes flat. The company, which promises the multi-billion dollar endeavor will be privately funded and operate as a private for-profit business without taxpayer subsidies, has said it hopes to have the train up and running by 2021.
Back in February, Conroe Republican state Rep. Will Metcalf filed a bill that would require elected officials from every county and city along the train's route to approve the project -- something that is very, very unlikely to happen. While officials in Houston and Dallas have championed the idea of a bullet train connecting the two cities, opposition to the project has stewed in rural areas along the route, with landowners fearing the line could divide ranch land and tank property values.
In response to landowner concerns, earlier this year Texas Central announced that it had chosen the so-called "utility corridor" route, which would stretch down from Dallas to Cypress, completely bypassing Montgomery County, then follow U.S. 290 into the 610 Loop. It would also follow existing high-voltage power lines, which the company says would "reduce the project's impact on communities and landowners." From the looks of it, that proposed route could run through a tiny sliver of Kolkhorst's Senate District 18.
These bills opposing the project would make a whole lot more sense if Texas Central was trolling for public dollars to subsidize the venture or if these lawmakers were truly interested in fundamentally reforming how private companies wield eminent domain in the state. Metcalf's bill, which has yet to be scheduled for a hearing, is basically just a kill-switch for communities that don't want high-speed rail whizzing by.
Unlike Metcalf, Kolkhorst has at least filed other eminent domain-related bills this session (one would establish an "eminent domain database" within the state comptroller's office; another would make it easier for people to re-purchase their property from a toll project if it's not used for the intended purpose; a third bill calls for companies or local governments to pay certain fees if someone contests a case and wins.)
Still, as the Texas Tribune reported yesterday, hundreds of private firms already have eminent domain authority in Texas, including pipeline companies, utility companies, telecommunications firms, and more than a dozen private railroad companies. None of Kolkhorst's measures would reform how companies use the process to, say, force oil pipelines or power transmission lines onto private property, let alone ban the practice for such companies.