Imagine a train that could whisk you from here to Dallas in 90 minutes flat. Texas Central Railway, a private company working with a Japanese train manufacturer, wants to make that possible by 2021. A ticket to ride, the company says, would be "very competitive with those of airlines." And, on top of that, the company promises the whole multi-billion dollar endeavor will be privately funded and ultimately operate as a private for-profit business without taxpayer subsidy.
So of course leaders in Houston, Dallas and Fort Worth love the idea. "If successful, Houstonians will have a reliable, private alternative that will help alleviate traffic congestion and drastically reduce travel times," Mayor Annise Parker said at a press conference touting the project last year.
And as you'd expect, the main opposition to the estimated $10 billion project has come from rural landowners along the proposed route. Well, landowners and Conroe state Rep. Will Metcalf, a Republican who wants to kill the thing, regardless of whether the train takes any public money or crosses his district, which spans the northern half of Montgomery County.
In response to landowners who've worried about whether the line would divide ranch land and tank property values in some rural patches along the train's path, Texas Central Railway officials announced last week they'd settled on the so-called "Utility Corridor" option. The route 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."
That has done little to appease Metcalf, who yesterday filed HB 1889, which, as the Texas Tribune reports, would essentially require elected officials from every city and county along the route to approve the project, something that is very, very unlikely to happen. Metcalf wrote on his Facebook page:
"This bill will require county approval for the use of eminent domain for electric railways. Numerous county officials have come out in opposition to the Texas Central Railway and their use of eminent domain. This bill would help give more local control and would let individual counties decide what is best for them. Although this may not be the ultimate solution, I believe it is a good first step. I am currently working on filing more legislation regarding this issue."
In a statement, TCR president Robert Eckels told us, "we believe this bill is a solution in search of a problem. Just last week, we recommended a route that does not even cross the boundaries of Montgomery County." Eckels also reiterated that the rail system "must be built by private investors and operated as a for-profit business, rather than with taxpayer subsidies."
So we called Metcalf's office today to better understand his staunch opposition to a bullet train that will neither a) cross his district or b) rely on public funding. His chief of staff, Seth Juergens, first told us, "We haven't heard from any constituents that support the project." We reiterated: But the project, as it is now proposed, doesn't affect your constituents. In response, Juergens gave us a couple of hypotheticals.
For one, Juergens says Metcalf isn't convinced TCR has really kicked the Montgomery County option to the curb. TCR had initially sent the Federal Railroad Administration two proposed routes to conduct an environmental impact study (for which, it should be noted, TCR has footed the bill). The rail company has told the feds that it now wants the route that skips Montgomery County, which it called the "superior alternative," but there's no guarantee the company won't backtrack in the future, Juergens insists.
But even if you "take it at face value that they're not going through our district," Juergens says Metcalf would still oppose high-speed rail because he's not convinced the company won't eventually come trolling for public subsidies. "They haven't showed that they've got $10 billion there," Juergens told us.
Okay. So what if TCR could promise Metcalf the route wouldn't touch Montgomery County and that it had guaranteed private financing?
Metcalf would still oppose the project -- "I think we'd just cut out the 'constituents' talk, then," Juergens says.
Why? Juergens says yesterday's bill was filed in hopes of protecting private property owners against the club of eminent domain -- certainly a legitimate concern for rural Texas landowners. But Metcalf's bill doesn't do much to reform how or when companies get to use it; it's basically a kill-switch for counties or cities that don't want a bullet train whizzing by.
Since Metcalf is so concerned with eminent domain, we asked his chief of staff whether the office would consider filing legislation reforming how companies can use the process to force oil pipelines or power transmission lines onto private property.
"We haven't heard that concern from our constituents yet," Juergens said.
Maybe Metcalf's office should check out that Facebook post heralding his kill-the-bullet-train bill, where one of the first comments reads: "It would be wonderful too if pipelines and public utilities could be limited as to how many times they can come through a landowner's property. 3 pipelines, two powers transmission lines and more beating on the door seems unfair."
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