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Could Texas high-speed rail hit a speed bump this session?

Lawmakers are pushing more measures than ever before that could delay the Dallas-Houston bullet train project — and there’s even a special subcommittee tackling the topic.

High-speed rail developers have been eyeing a 240-mile stretch of mostly rural land sandwiched between the urban hubs of Dallas and Houston for years. Their goal: buy it up and build America’s first bullet train.

But several rural landowners don't plan on giving up their private property without a fight. And their supporters in the Legislature have filed so many bills that could disrupt Texas Central Partners LLC's plans that there's an entire subcommittee tackling the ongoing battle over the multibillion-dollar project.

“We know why all the bills before this subcommittee were filed,” said W. Brad Anderson, an eminent domain attorney working for Texas Central. “The underlying purpose of those bills is to stop the high-speed rail.”

Texas Central is used to such legislative opposition. For the past two sessions, opponents have filed bills aimed at crippling or killing the high-speed rail project, but it’s remained relatively unscathed. This year, there are more bills than ever before, according to Kyle Workman, president and chairman of the grassroots group Texans Against High-Speed Rail.

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Urbanites claim the bullet train would stimulate jobs and propel Texas into the vanguard of American transportation. But many rural landowners and their supporters say the project would unfairly strip land from private property owners for a project that could easily fail.

Texas Central says it has the right to condemn land and buy it from unwilling owners, but it vows to buy as much land as possible from landowners who voluntarily sell. Debate over the company's claims of such eminent domain powers has fueled local court battles. And disagreement over the claims lies at the heart of some of this year's legislation that could at least delay, if not kill, the Dallas-Houston train.

“The majority of all rail bills, if not all, are anti-rail,” said state Rep. Terry Canales, D-Edinburg, who chairs the House Transportation Committee and created the new high-speed rail subcommittee.

Many of the bills follow a similar pattern: They would require a high-speed rail developer to raise money needed for construction, acquire federal permits, or secure necessary land before surveying or building any part of the line. And in some cases, lawmakers don't want developers to be able to collaborate with the state on how to access rights-of-way around highways.

At a hearing last week, Texas Central representatives said the bills so far unfairly target the project and impose unfair requirements that other similar projects, like natural gas pipelines, don’t have.

But Workman said in an interview with the Tribune that the package of bills doesn’t target Texas Central. Rather, he says, regulations are necessary for the new high-speed rail industry so private property rights and government resources are protected if a company can’t follow through on a project due to, for example, lack of funding or inability to get permits.

“If I was a power line company and I was going to run a brand spankin’ new power line system that had never been done before ... we’d have to get that approved first,” he said.

Many of the key players pushing for legislative reform are rural Republican lawmakers like state Rep. Ben Leman of Anderson, the freshman representative who helped start and once chaired Texans Against High-Speed Rail. This year, he sits on the high-speed rail subcommittee. Leman has proposed a measure to prevent a company from surveying land for a high-speed rail project until it has all the necessary funding for construction. State Rep. Steve Toth, R-The Woodlands, has filed a bill that would prevent state agencies from issuing permits or negotiating rights-of-way with a high-speed rail company unless they’ve received what bullet train supporters have called an “alphabet soup” of all necessary federal approvals and permits.

“I think it’s going to create a bureaucratic nightmare,” said Peter LeCody, the president of Texas Rail Advocates.

Texas Central expects to have environmental and safety permits in place by the end of the year and has raised more than $450 million in funding, which meets all its fundraising goals to date, according to Holly Reed, managing director of external affairs for the company. Workman, however, says the year-end deadline is unrealistic and "like a fairytale." After receiving the federal permits, the company will raise an estimated $12 billion to $15 billion for construction.

Texas Central has also said that the company will not build a single mile of track until it has enough money to build the entire length of the project— but rail advocates want to codify these promises into law.

Rep. Cody Harris, R-Palestine, has proposed a bill that would void all the land purchase contracts Texas Central has already secured if the high-speed rail company files bankruptcy. A similar bill by Harris would also prevent high-speed rail companies from using acquired land for any other purpose.

“There’s a private company pursuing a high-speed rail project that is aggressively pressuring landowners to enter into option contracts for the future acquisition of their land using the threat of eminent domain,” he said. “What happens to the landowners when this proposed high-speed rail fails, just like the one in California? Will the state of Texas turn a blind eye to the landowners?”

In response to these concerns, a spokesperson from Texas Central said the company is “committed to creating and maintaining open lines of communication with landowners, and negotiating with them directly in personalized fashion,” citing the company’s more than 40 community meetings covering every impacted county.

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For opponents like Harris, California's $77 billion high-speed rail project —which critics call the “train to nowhere” — foretells the potential perils of a Texas project. While the California rail was originally intended to stretch across the 500-mile corridor between Los Angeles and San Francisco, California Gov. Gavin Newsom recently nixed significant segments of the project due to concerns about cost, oversight and time, according to the San Francisco Chronicle.

But Texas Central CEO and President Carlos Aguilar says the Dallas-Houston rail line is much cheaper and, unlike the California project, will not be financed by state or federal grants. The company could use federal loans, though.

While the company says it doesn't plan to use any state funds for construction or operations, the Senate's proposed state budget includes a provision that would prevent the Texas Department of Transportation from coordinating with a high-speed rail company so its project could cross state highways until a court definitively affirms the company's ability to use eminent domain with an unappealable ruling. Such a court battle to resolve the eminent domain dispute could take “several years” according to Patrick McShan, an attorney for Texans Against High-Speed Rail who represents more than 100 landowners along the train's route.

Such a provision was not in the House's proposed budget, and a committee of members from both chambers is currently working to resolve differences between the two spending plans.

Dallas and Houston city representatives criticized the flurry of legislative moves as potentially significant obstacles to their cities’ growth.

Molly Carroll, executive project manager for the high-speed rail project with the city of Dallas, said the bullet train could revitalize an underserved area of the city just south of downtown — fostering an estimated 500 jobs and 20 million square feet of new development valued at $8 billion.

“The high-speed rail project is a catalyst project the city has needed to kickstart the rebuilding in this part of our city,” she said. “This is a once-in-a-generation project and opportunity that the city of Dallas and the great state of Texas cannot afford to miss.”

Advocates and legislators on both sides say it’s too soon to know the outcome of high-speed rail reforms this session — but Workman said even without a legislative victory, the session would still be a success.

“Are we going to get all these bills passed? No ... we might not get any passed, but we’re raising awareness on the issue,” he said. “Texas Central has a lot of muscle, but we’re staying after them.”

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