The following guest column from Texas State Representative Byron Cook appeared in several local newspapers between Dallas and Houston, criticizing the high speed train project. His column appears first followed by Texas Rail Advocates President Peter LeCody's rebuttal which was uploaded to the newspapers websites.
Corsicana Daily Sun - February 4, 2017
We know that when something sounds too good to be true— it generally ends up not being true. I believe this is the case with the current proposed Japanese - Texas High Speed Rail Project between Dallas and Houston.
Understandably, epic traffic congestion in Houston and Dallas makes the concept of a bullet train a very popular item in these urban areas. But the fear of eminent domain abuse in the rural counties between Houston and Dallas feels more like a bullet of a different kind. It feels like a bullet aimed at property owners who question whether they are being asked to sell their land under threat of eminent domain to a commercial real estate venture or for the state's master transportation plan for the future.
Now, with rumors that President Trump may add High Speed Rail in Texas to his priority list of national infrastructure projects, a closer look at this Japanese-backed Dallas to Houston project is very much in order. As a public servant to this great state, I am proud to hold myself and my political colleagues accountable, to urge an adherence to Texas values, and to advocate in the best interests of my fellow Texans. It is precisely in keeping with this sense of pride for the great state of Texas that I feel it necessary to call attention to some troubling observations related to the proposed Dallas to Houston high speed rail project being touted by private real estate speculators aligned with Japanese commercial interests who are jointly operating under the names Texas Central Partners, Texas Central Railway (TCR) and Texas Central.
You could be excused for not recognizing TCR by name. The just four-year-old self-proclaimed “railroad” company owns nothing in the way of telltale indicators of a real railroad affiliation (e.g., rolling stock, train depots, or even tracks), and indeed has no apparent intention of operating the very rails they hope to lay. In fact, TCR's claimed "eminent domain" power as a railroad is very much in question and is now being contested in state court (trial set for July 2017).
Concerns over legitimate eminent domain powers are not the only controversy surrounding the TCR real estate venture. There should also be a real concern over TCR's plan to use only Japanese Shinkansen rail technology. This technology is not compatible with other rail technologies including all rail systems presently operated in Texas. Reliance on a Japanese monopoly has two serious negative consequences.
First, it would hold future generations of Texas rail customers hostage to a monopoly railroad technology with NO competitive suppliers to keep operational costs down and passenger fares affordable.
Think about this. Would we build an airport with runways that can ONLY handle airplanes manufactured by Airbus to land and take off? Or would we build a highway with lanes that can ONLY handle cars made by Volvo? Or would we allow only one transportation-for-hire ride sharing app in Texas? Of course not.
The second negative consequence of exclusively using the Japanese rail technology is its incompatibility with existing railroad tracks already in Texas cities. This means TCR's trains will NOT truly connect to the central city centers of Houston and Dallas and will fall short in their time saving claim on travel because passengers will have to take secondary means of transportation to get to their final destinations, costing them more time and money.
Additionally, TCR's claim that they will not rely on taxpayer funding is simply disingenuous.
Despite TCR's carefully nuanced claim of no tax funding for its "operations," we have now learned that federal taxpayer dollars could be at risk in financing TCR's proposed $11 billion dollar "construction costs."
In fact, Tim Keith, president and former CEO of TCR, recently qualified TCR's earlier no taxpayer exposure claim by stating that TCR may in fact seek federal loan guarantees (like RRIF and TIFIA) to help finance its "construction debt" for the project.
As for the costs of passenger rail operations, it is common knowledge that substantial public funding has been necessary across the world in order to both build and operate most conventional and high speed passenger rail infrastructures. Subsequently, tax monies end up subsidizing such passenger rail services. For TCR to say they will do better on the operational side of their proposed service is admirable, but as they currently have no previous railroad experience, this is an extremely ambitious and unproven claim. In summary, if inter-regional high speed passenger rail is to be a part of Texas' future transportation solution, then we need to slow down. We also need to involve the Texas Department of Transportation to ensure we have a master passenger rail plan that protects both urban and rural private property owner rights, guarantees transparency of all tax dollar expenditures and/or loans (federal, state and local), and we must guard against monopoly control of our state's future inter-regional passenger rail infrastructure and operations. Keeping our Texas economy and Texans moving is critical, but just as we tell our children and grandchildren to look both ways before crossing the street, our state needs to take a closer look as well before boarding future trains.
State Representative Byron Cook (R-Corsicana) Rebuttal:
Texas Representative Byron Cook's guest column on the bullet train project between Dallas and Houston misses the mark on several fronts.
But Cook is right to state that only a handful of high speed rail projects in the world pay for themselves. That's what makes the Texas Central project so intriguing because it combines a rail component WITH a real estate component to deliver a bottom line to its shareholders. That's exactly what is happening in Florida right now as All Aboard Florida's Brightline train service begins service this year based on train revenue and real estate holdings in a mega project to connect Miami to Orlando. It looks like the same play that would connect our two Top 5 population centers. That seems like the American enterprise system at its best,
Representative Cook stated that Texas Central trains would not be compatible to run on other railroads' tracks in the state. That is actually true and it's because you don't want 200 mile an hour trains running on slow freight rail tracks. They must run on their own tracks for safety reasons and be separated from highway traffic.
The reason why we must import high speed train technology from other countries is because there has never been the desire until recently to build or operate bullet trains in the U.S. We are a third world country when it comes to bullet train technology. It does not exist in the U.S. and we must look to others for their expertise. Isn't that a sad commentary on what used to be a great industrialized nation?
Representative Cook's reference to airports and roads fails to mention that neither our airports or roads, which are government controlled monopolies, pay property taxes. A private company like Texas Central will pay property taxes on their investment to cities and counties between Dallas and Houston every year.
Finally, the Texas Department of Transportation has a State Rail Plan, which is required by the Federal Railroad Administration and must be updated periodically. Also an Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) now underway provides for a complete and concise report on all issues before permits can be issued. Those pieces are already in place.
It sounds like Representative Cook wants to "slow down" the high speed train project to kill it. That doesn't sound like a free enterprise conservative to me. You can follow me on Twitter @railadvo