June 30, 2016

A lot of manure has been thrown about by rural lawmakers and some anti-high speed rail groups trying to kill a $10 billion private project that would link North Texas and Houston.

Texas Central recently filed two petitions with the Surface Transportation Board in Washington.  Holly Reed, Managing Director of External Affairs for Texas Central Partners LLC said that " the purpose of these filings was to obtain a determination from the STB regarding its role in the project to help ensure full compliance with the project’s regulatory requirements." Per Federal law, every new railroad construction project must seek a decision from the Board regarding the project’s regulatory requirements and whether the STB has jurisdiction.

This hasn't stopped some state lawmakers from twisting the facts to suit their agenda. "Now TCR is asking the Feds to accelerate their efforts to take the private property rights of Texans." That's from State Represenative Cecil Bell Jr's website. Unfortunately Representative Bell didn't fact check the law when Texas Central asked for an exemption from a multi-year regulatory study. Texas Central’s filing for the exemption process is quite standard. In Federal law, (49 U.S.C. §10502), Congress commanded that the STB “shall” exempt proposed projects rather than subjecting them to lengthy regulatory review “to the maximum extent consistent with” the national rail transportation policy.  For this and other reasons, exemptions are routinely requested by and granted to railroads to construct and operate new rail lines.

Texans Against High Speed Rail, based in Jewett, Texas posted on their website June 2 that "Texas Central has asked the Board, a federal agency, for permission to start condemnation proceedings now, through a no-notice, sneak attack petition for “clarification.”  That's pretty inflammatory considering that the STB can not override Texas eminent domain law. The STB's prior decisions make clear that eminent domain is strictly a matter of state law. Texas Central has responded saying that "the Petition for Clarification filed with the STB in April does not seek to exempt the project from, or to override, Texas state eminent domain law."

That didn't stop TAHSR from filing a dissenting comment with the STB. On their website they said "we included with our filing a verified statement from one of Texas’ most highly regarded eminent domain attorneys, confirming that Texas Central is making an “unprecedented and unconstitutional effort to rob landowners of the value of their property.” (the attorney) goes on to say, “Never before have I seen the audacity of this type of premature condemnation proceeding, and this Board should be offended by the effort.” It wasn't even required, but Texas Central filed an additional 800 pages of information with the STB regulators to rebut claims that were made in off the wall public comments to the board.

Despite claims from the opposition Texas Central believes that the STB has jurisdiction over the intrastate high speed rail line.  TCR's response was "we believe it does because the Texas Central Line will benefit the public and promote the national transportation policy by providing a safe, reliable, convenient and environmentally friendly travel option between Dallas/Ft. Worth and Houston, two of the fastest-growing metropolitan areas in the United States.  The Texas Central Line will provide connectivity with interstate passenger trains serving Dallas and Houston." Amtrak has already indicated that it will explore options for connectivity with TCR. The North Central Texas Council of Governments is exploring options to link the Dallas terminal westward to Arlington and Fort Worth and tie in with a TxDOT study that would cover the I-35 corridor area from Oklahoma to South Texas.

The second petition that TCR filed with the STB had to do with a standard protective order to protect sensitive and proprietary documents. The terms of the Protective Order issued by the STB in connection with Texas Central’s Petition for Exemption are identical to the terms of Protective Orders issued by the Board in other recent railroad cases. Again, it didn't stop the howling from those wanting to kill the project claiming that TCR was trying to hide information.

Opponents from nine rural counties between Dallas and Houston claim they will take this fight to the state legislature in January. They actually came close to killing high speed rail last session when a Rider found its way into the budget bill initiated by Texas Senator Charles Schwertner of Georgetown. A last minute vote by the budget reconcilation committee removed it.  Be prepared for another session of bills to be filed to kill high speed rail and taxpayer time and money wasted in an attempt to stop Texas from entering the 21st century with modern rail transportation.

And then there are the attorneys. The lawyers for the opposition are well heeled from Dallas and Washington D.C. and their rhetoric has already started.

One rail industry wag summed it up this way: "the attorneys will, to be sure, take the towns and counties and landowners to the cleaners.  And waste TCR money on legal fees as well."