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Bullet-train battle moves toward special session

AUSTIN — They’re still working on the railroad, but while advocates of the high-speed train linking Dallas and Houston remain bullish about getting off the drawing board and on track, new barriers could loom.

“We’re going to do everything we can to get ourselves inserted into the special (legislative) session” scheduled to begin July 18, Kyle Workman, president of Texans Against High-Speed Rail, said in a Wednesday telephone interview.

Chris Lippincott, executive director of Texas Rail Advocates, which advocates for expanded rail service in the state, said that “the good news is, the effort to shut them down came up short,” in the just-ended regular session.

However, Texans Against High Speed Rail Chairman Ben Leman said goal during the session was to make sure Texas Central Partners did not get any meaningful legislation passed.

“That was achieved,” Leman said.

Critics of the project filed at least nine bills to derail the train, which they say will cut through farms and ranches and exceed budget.

They also fear that the private effort would eventually become a taxpayer liability.

Two bills passed.

Lippincot said the two bills “clarified everyone’s responsibilities.”

Holly Reed, managing director for external affairs for the company that’s developing high-speed passenger rail system, Texas Central Partners, applauded the bills.

“As Senate bills 977 and 975 become law, we credit the speaker, lieutenant governor and governor for their leadership and support of fiscal conservatism and safety, as well as the bill authors,” Reed said in a statement.

The bills actually help bullet-train opponents, Leman and Workman say.

One requires the rail authority to coordinate security efforts with state and local law enforcement, as well as disaster response agencies.

Sen. Brian Birdwell, R-Granbury, authored the security bill.

“For two years I have been an outspoken opponent of this project and the negative impact it would have on the citizens I represent,” Birdwell said in a statement. “I’m pleased to be filing ... legislation to ensure the safety of all Texans should any future high-speed rail project be undertaken.”

The bill also requires the operator to implement federal Transportation Security Administration security measures and requires rail operators to compensate peace officers for security services.

“These guys were relying on local government to pay for that,” said Leman, who is also Grimes County judge.

The second prohibits the legislature from appropriating or spending money to pay any costs related to construction, maintenance, or operation of a private high-speed rail in Texas.

“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,” Sen. Charles Schwertner, R-Georgetown, said in a statement about Senate Bill 977, which he authored.

Workman wouldn’t elaborate on the group’s plans for the special session.

None of the 20 items that Gov. Greg Abbott listed for the special session directly address railroads.

But Leman said he has his eye on one item that could be a candidate for anti-bullet train legislation.

It would prevent local governments from changing rules midway through construction projects.

“We’re working with the governor right now about what he’s trying to target,” Leman said. “We’ve never had a project like this.

“We need to establish appropriate regulations.”

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