Now that the Texas House and Senate have picked their conferees to iron out differences in the state budget, a line of text that has nothing to do with how the state spends taxpayer money could decide the outcome of a private company that will run high-speed trains between Dallas and Houston.
A budget rider that was attached to the state budget bill by Granbury Republican State Senator Brian Birdwell could stop progress on Texas Central Railway's plans to build a line for a North Texas to Houston bullet train starting as early as the end of this year.
The language in the rider would deny any public monies for the Texas Central planned rail line. However, the railroad has repeatedly said it will not accept any state funding, and state lawmakers last session made sure of it when they passed a law that denies any funds for high-speed rail.
"The state budget is the instrument for determining how taxpayer monies fund state agencies and not to be used as a weapon against a private company", according to Texas Rail Advocates President Peter LeCody. "It's a contemptible mis-use of office to shut down a private project. This rider circumvents the normal legislative process of holding hearings and puts government in the dark. The senator should be ashamed of himself. This budget rider was tried last session by Senator Charles Schwertner and this time Senator Birdwell has been charged with carrying the ball for this end run."
The Senate budget bill conferees will be:
Jane Nelson, (R-Flower Mound), chairwoman
Joan Huffman, (R-Houston)
Lois Kolkhorst, (R-Brenham)
Robert Nichols, (R-Jacksonville)
Larry Taylor, (R-Friendswood)
The House conferees will be: Chairman John Zerwas (R-Katy) Greg Bonnen (R-Galveston) Sarah Davis (R-Houston) Oscar Longoria (D-Mission) Armando Walle (D-Houston) "I guess Senator Birdwell forgot that in 2017 he voted for no state funding for high-speed rail and also voted in favor of a safety and security bill for high-speed trains of which both bills were favored by the private company building the line," according to LeCody. "Senator Birdwell continues to issue falsehoods like comparing the publicly funded California High Speed Rail project, which has had massive management and funding problems to a private company with investors in Texas and around the world ready to show that high-speed rail can work."
In a press release Birdwell said that "this rider seeks to solely protect state resources, including state right-of-ways, should Texas Central Rail (TCR) begin construction before receiving a definitive answer on their condemnation authority." Birdwell’s office said TxDOT would be restricted from spending state resources to coordinate access to state highway right-of-ways for any construction purposes.
Birdwell's concern is that the rail line would be unregulated and unapproved by any state or federal entity. Not so, says LeCody. "If the rural legislators would let the Texas Department of Transportation work with the Federal Railroad Administration (FRA) and the U.S. Department of Transportation there are plenty of rail and road regulations to go around."
The FRA has been studying high-speed rail systems from other countries and writing guidelines and regulations for this first-of-its-kind rail line to be built in the U.S. Speeds would reach 200 miles per hour on the 90 minute trip from Dallas to Houston with an intermediate stop to serve College Station, Texas A&M and Huntsville. The 240 mile line would only need a footprint for two tracks about as wide as a country road with shoulders and would be elevated on pylons for a good portion of the line.