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Texas senators don't want state funds to be used to build Houston-to-Dallas bullet train

State lawmakers who oppose high-speed rail are trying to use a budget rider to stop the Texas Department of Transportation from assisting a private company that wants to build a high-speed rail line from Houston to Dallas.

The Senate Finance Committee approved the budget rider 14-1 Wednesday, with Sen. Royce West of Dallas opposed. It will next be heard on the Senate floor as part of debates related to the full budget.

Sen. Charles Schwertner has joined a group of rural lawmakers who are using both legislative and budgetary provisions to stop the progress on the high-speed train.

“This legislation will ensure that the property rights of our constituents are respected and guarantee that state taxpayers won’t be asked to bail out this project when costs inevitably exceed projections and ridership fails to meet expectations,” the Georgetown Republican has said of the rail line this session, citing a Reason Foundation study that projects potential long-term financial losses.

In the scope of the larger budget documents, riders are the lawmakers’ additional instructions to state agencies. In this case, Schwertner filed a rider to stop the Texas Department of Transportation from using any state funds in the “funding, planning, construction, maintenance, security or operation of high-speed rail.”

West accused Schwertner of attempting to stop the Dallas-to-Houston line.

Schwertner deflected that accusation, saying he was simply protecting the state’s interests, given the failure of rail in other states. A similar amendment passed the Senate but failed to pass the House during last session’s budget debate.

Texas should not foot the bill on what could easily be a boondoggle for the state’s budget, Schwertner said. It's up to Texas Central, the company that wants to build the bullet train, to fund the project, he added.

Schwertner was joined by Sen. Robert Nichols, R-Jacksonville, who said a clear separation was needed between the rail project and TxDOT. Nichols, a former Texas transportation commissioner and chairman of the Senate Transportation Committee, said TxDOT had gone on the road with Texas Central in recent months, promoting the rail line, sometimes under the guise of the event being sanctioned by TxDOT.

Estimates of the cost of the high-speed rail line vary from the $12 billion estimate of Texas Central to the $18 billion estimate by TxDOT.

Asked to comment Wednesday on the actions in Senate Finance, Texas Central issued a statement that the so-called Texas Bullet Train was committed to being entirely self-funded:

“The Bullet Train is committed to not request any state grants or taxpayer subsidies to operate the train. None is asked for and none is expected. There is no appropriation for the high-speed train in the appropriations bill. This budget rider language therefore is unnecessary and as written is a job killer. Texas Central engineers and employees need to be able to coordinate with TxDOT on the planning, engineering and construction of the high-speed train to accommodate the state’s growth. We will continue to work with the Legislature to ensure that these activities can proceed.”

Rural lawmakers also have filed a long list of bills to attack the bullet train, many of them focused on eminent domain. Opponents of the high-speed rail corridor have begun to compare the big-dollar project to another recent failed transportation effort, the Trans-Texas Corridor.

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