Bullet train sparks fight as old as Texas: Progress vs. tradition
COTTON GIN, Texas - William Shelton will not let go of the past, even if it is in the way of someone else's future.
He has spent more than five years rebuilding his family's ancestral home, board by board, and has no intention of leaving it or the 250-acre farm that has been in his family since 1851.
Two years ago, surveyors started showing up, wanting a clear idea of his property lines for Texas Central Railway, the company behind plans for a 200-mph "bullet train" connecting Houston to Dallas. The proposed route would go through Shelton's farm.
"I guarantee I will be restoring that house until that first train comes over that hill," Shelton said.
Down in Houston, Melanie Sowell dreams of being on that train and 90 minutes away from family rather than four hours.
Her Texas ties go back as far as Shelton's. The Latino side of her family crossed the Rio Grande when Mexico still controlled the land on the north side.
"I know what this land means to people. Believe me, I do," Sowell said. "I also know Texas isn't stuck in place."
The fight over Texas Central Railway - a.k.a. the Texas Bullet Train - rests on many of the contentious fault lines that shape the Lone Star State. City interests versus rural identity. Urban dwellers versus people who want their stars at night to shine big and bright.
Mostly, it is about land. Who controls it, what's the best use for it and how much of it can the two metro areas - Houston and Dallas - claim so their economic futures are secure.
"How do you achieve that balance?" Harris County Precinct 4 Commissioner Jack Cagle asked. He supports the project despite the strong opposition of many in his district. "They don't want to have that next generation of development, and you have to be sensitive to that."
Sensitivity, however, has not dissuaded local officials from full-throated support of the project.
Supporters call the project an honest attempt at taking Texas' size and shrinking it so the metro regions will prosper. The train and its tracks - 200 feet wide, 240 miles long - are an all-electric attempt and a new option for convenience and conveyance, for Americans.
"It is just marvelous to go from the downtown of one city to the downtown of another city," said Felix Madrigal, a Hutchins resident who came to support the train in Dallas at a Jan. 29 meeting held by the Federal Railroad Administration.
When both metro areas have 10 million or more residents - which demographers expect over the next 25 to 30 years - Interstate 45 will be overloaded. Widening it won't handle the anticipated travel demand, even with autonomous cars cruising at more than 90 mph.
"It is false security to think automated technology will solve our travel," said Sam Lott, an engineer and professor who has overseen dozens of rail plans and feasibility studies in a roughly 40-year career.
Texas Central Partners announced Feb. 5 it had chosen Northwest Mall as its preferred high-speed rail station in the Houston area. Renderings of the station were unveiled during the announcement.
Texas Central wants to build another way to move. It is seeking federal approval for a privately-funded high-speed rail line using Japanese Shinkansen trains. The line would be a sealed corridor between a station on the southern end of downtown Dallas and Northwest Mall in Houston at Loop 610 and U.S. 290.
Trains would operate every 30 minutes, with the trip taking 90 minutes end-to-end. A third stop is planned in the Roans Prairie area northeast of Navasota, aimed at luring travelers from College Station and Huntsville.
A ticket for the train would be comparable to airline prices, which average $199 each way for Houston-to-Dallas flights. Like airline tickets, prices would fluctuate based on sales and how early in advance someone purchases a fare.
"We have different prices for families," Texas Central CEO Carlos Aguilar said, noting his priority is making the trains tempting for all travelers.
The company expects at least 5 million people to hop aboard annually, as airlines focus on other connections and travel times via I-45 prompt some to look for alternatives. A Federal Railroad Administration draft environmental report estimated ridership as high as 7.2 million a year.
The ridership estimate, which opponents call preposterous, is ambitious, compared to the roughly 700,000 travelers who fly between the metro areas each year.
Company officials, however, say their economic analyses show it is reasonable. If not, they said, lenders will not loan them the money. The government, they note, is not on the hook.
"We're not looking for grants from the government... We're doing this with private funds," said Drayton McLane, chairman of Texas Central's board and former owner of the Houston Astros.
Aguilar said he hopes to have a record of decision, one of two major federal approvals needed, by the end of the year.
The company said the release of the FRA's draft environmental report, which assesses a host of conditions - noise, watershed effects, air quality, historic properties - clears up a lot of the misconceptions about the project.
Amid more than 5,600 pages of studies and maps, the report lays out the project more specifically than anything before it. From it, the federal government has narrowed a long list of options to a proposed route, that generally follows a utility alignment. That means the train would cut a path through the Texas brush, along rolling hills and cattle pastures and close to more than a dozen small towns and rural communities.
The release of the draft environmental report on the project has led to more questions than answers for many critics, who packed by the hundreds into schools to scold federal officials for even getting this far without writing the project off as a fraud.
"The FRA is just going through the motions," said Glenn Mannina, a vocal critic of the train who spoke at five of the public hearings, pointing out a litany of problems he has identified with the environmental report.
Mannina, and others, have said the lack of a feasibility study in the federal report is a glaring omission, as they believe the project cannot possibly make money. Critics have said noise studies used by Texas Central are inadequate because they rely only on the noise from one train - not two trains passing each other.
The Japanese trains, meanwhile, operate on similar tracks but cannot share the line with anyone else. Mannina said he believes the goal of Japanese supporters is to get Texas Central to build the line, fail to operate it profitably, and then swoop in and acquire it for pennies on the dollar once they write off federally-backed loans.
"When they get the assets, all they have to do is operate for positive," Mannina said.
Texas Central stands by its ridership projections, calling some of the speculation misinformation intended to confuse residents.
"We are a private-sector company and we have spent millions of dollars on advanced research to show our investors they will not lose money," David Benzion, communications director for Texas Central, told the Gulf Coast Rail District. The district, made up of officials appointed by various cities and counties, is aimed at advancing passenger rail and freight projects in the region.
What some landowners have seen from the company makes them wary. Repeatedly, residents in Waller, Grimes, Leon, Limestone, Navarro and Ellis counties have accused Texas Central of dubious practices, ranging from vague economic projections to a lack of public scrutiny, in addition to what they see as aggressive efforts to enter private lands to conduct surveys.
In Leon County, where opposition among elected leaders is universal, Sheriff Ken Ellis said his department already has responded to calls regarding surveyors seeking access to private property.
Ellis said no arrests were made, but deputies repeatedly were called when residents saw surveyors near private land, or placing equipment on county roads and rights of way. Residents reported when surveyors asked for access to property, were declined, and then demanded residents sign a document saying they refused access.
When landowners balked at signing, Ellis said, some called the sheriff's office.
"If those surveys were taken illegally, those surveys should be discarded," said Kyle Workman, president of Texans Against High-Speed Rail, a group formed to oppose the project.
Workman and others urged federal officials to extend the comment period, citing the huge amount of information the environmental review provided. Authorities added 15 days, making the final day to comment March 9. Even that irked opponents.
"They had three years to develop this, we have 75 days," said Donovan Meritic, who worries his autistic son - the reason he moved to 25 acres away from lights and noise - will be affected by the train.
Eminent domain fears
Beyond concerns over the plan and rural lifestyle effects, Texas Central faces a virulent opposition based solely on the company's planned use of eminent domain. Though state lawmakers essentially have barred the company from using state authorities to condemn property, Texas Central maintains it has some options via federal authorities as a railroad, under Texas law.
The certainty of that, however, is murky, and something Texans Against High-Speed Rail has challenged in court.
The notion of a private company having condemnation power riles residents along the line and political supporters from across eastern Texas.
"It is fundamentally immoral for private land to be taken from landowners, some of which has been in their families for generations, and be given to some company," said Reagan Reed, a Montgomery County resident active with local conservative groups and the Austin-based Empower Texans.
Candidates for elected offices also lined up in droves at the federal meetings to declare their opposition to the bullet train, citing eminent domain concerns.
Texas Central has said it needs 8,000 acres for the project. The company says it has 30 percent of the parcels needed for the route, but officials have not specified where those tracts are located or how much of the 8,000 acres they include.
Company officials said they still are negotiating with many landowners even as the federal project narrows the route.
"We are paying above fair-market value," said Michael Moore, regional vice-president for Texas Central in the Houston area.
Still, any condemnation is a concern for opponents, along with a host of powerful politicians who have lined up against some of Texas Central's plans. That includes Rep. Kevin Brady, a Woodlands Republican and one of the most powerful members of Congress as chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee that prepares the federal budget. Brady has said he opposes the project moving forward, if it does so over the objections of most people north of Houston.
"While I don't oppose high-speed rail as a concept, and strongly support infrastructure that addresses the dynamic growth of Texas, transportation improvements need to work for local communities, not against them," Brady said in a statement.
Brady said he would prefer the train line rethink running parallel to I-45, a route the company and federal railroad officials discounted as more damaging than the utility path. He added he would oppose any efforts to allow Texas Central to use eminent domain, or acquire federal funds.
"Your tax dollars should not go to split your land in half," Brady said in a statement his district director, Heather Washburn, read aloud to federal officials in Navasota, to thunderous applause from local opponents.
Preserving way of life
Up and down the proposed train's 240-mile path, there is anger, fear and frustration.
"It is hard on us people who live out in the country to see our way of life going down the drain," Pam House told a standing-room-only crowd at a Federal Railroad Administration meeting in Cypress.
Barbara Miles, a longtime Leon County resident, compared plans for the train line to catastrophic floods, raids by Native American tribes against early settlers and another rail line planned in the late 1980s.
"It too threatens to destroy our way of life," Miles said. "We will defend our homes and way of life here until this latest obstacle is overcome."
It is not about opposition to progress, many insist. It's about preservation of their communities and their character. The train is just the latest thing bearing down on them, they say.
When the Shelton House was first built, Cotton Gin was booming. It went bust when the Houston and Texas Central Railway - ironically sharing a similar name to the current company - took its tracks through Mexia, six miles to the west, instead.
The Sheltons stayed, and over time the home became more than a shelter. It became a portal.
"It is so unique for any family to be able to stand in the very rooms in which seven generations were conceived, born, christened, wedded, and hosted their funerals," William Shelton said.
That's why, when surveyors started coming down the road to look at his land, Shelton nailed a notice to his front gate: "No trespassing. Violators will be shot, survivors will be shot again."
The bullet train project has put many farmers who live quiet lives in the uncomfortable position of having to make noise. Often pausing for the right words, dozens descended on the FRA meetings to make their feelings known.
"I have three minutes to save the land that has been in my family for six generations," Logan Wilson said, before reading remarks prepared by his daughter.
"This land is irreplaceable to us," Wilson said later, stiffening and talking more forcefully. "I believe we have the right to keep what is ours."
This train episode ends one of two ways for Wilson, he said: His family gathers on his farm near Personville, in rural Limestone County, for one of its camp-outs to celebrate the death of Texas Central Railway. Or the family camps out one more time to say goodbye to the land it loves.
"There is no other choice," Wilson said later. "That's it."