History is now sadly repeating itself, as opponents of the Texas HSR project are now employing the same tactics that California HSR project opponents used. Where to start?
A Texas Senate transportation committee approved a bill that would remove eminent domain authority from Texas Central:
[State Sen.] Kolkhorst said Wednesday that she didn’t want to see private landowners lose their land for a project that she believed is likely to fail.
“While I think in some countries it has worked, I don’t see a whole lot of high-speed rail across the United States,” Kolkhorst said. “I just don’t see it, and I’m not sure I want Texas to be the guinea pig on this.”…
Yet at Wednesday’s hearing, Republican senators expressed concern that a private company was going to use eminent domain authority for a for-profit venture.
“Eminent domain is probably the most horrific power that the government has, and to dole that out to individual companies that can misuse that or use it for projects that result in profits, we have to be very careful about doing that,” Hall said.
This should come as no surprise. Opposition to government use of eminent domain, as well as skepticism of HSR itself, both stem from core right-wing ideological values. As Texas is governed by the right, it makes sense that these tropes would be mobilized by HSR opponents to try and stop the train.
I’ve mentioned the Trans-Texas Corridor before in posts about the Texas HSR project. The TTC was bitterly opposed by rural and conservative Texas. Now they are seeing the TTC as less awful than Texas HSR, which is just jaw-dropping:
“This begins to make the Trans-Texas Corridor not look so bad,” Kolkhorst said. “At least you could get across the Trans-Texas Corridor in theory in certain places.”
Texas Central officials said that they were working to fight against misinformation about the project in various communities, including concerns that the rail line would block roads. They said the train line would have overpasses and underpasses throughout the route.
Land purchase concerns have forced Texas Central to agree to routing the tracks out of Montgomery County, the exurban area just north of Houston that includes The Woodlands:
Montgomery County is off the table for a high-speed rail route but neighboring counties could still see the high-speed train that would connect Houston and Dallas.
During an information meeting Saturday night in Montgomery, a handful of residents questioned former Harris County Judge and President of the Texas Central Rail Robert Eckels about his company’s plan for the rail through Texas. Eckels said the route will utilize the utility corridor which would take the rail west of Montgomery County.
Hot button issues were eminent domain of property and how the rail would affect county roads. A resident asked Eckels what would happen to property taken by eminent domain that wasn’t used noting in California, that unused land was auctioned off instead of given back to the original property owner.
“We don’t get that property,” he said. “We aren’t a California style project. If we don’t build it, it goes right back to the property owner.”
Of course, this doesn’t necessarily mean that residents in Waller County, to the west of Montgomery County, are going to be any more interested in having HSR in their own backyard. But here again we see California being trotted out as a bogeyman, only for Texas HSR to run smack into the exact same issues being thrown at the California HSR project.
Texas HSR opponents have learned to make the same arguments that their California counterparts have:
While Eckels said the project would bring tax dollars to the counties it crosses, Workman said the project is “doomed” from the beginning and will end up being supported by tax payer subsidy.
“There are no profitable high-speed rail lines in the world,” Workman said. “They are all heavily taxpayer supported.”
In fact, HSR lines are almost all profitable – unless you count the capital costs, in which case virtually no piece of transportation infrastructure anywhere is profitable. But this line of attack is fascinating because it is aiming at the heart of Texas Central’s claims that it is better than California HSR because it won’t take taxpayer money. The HSR deniers in Texas have taken a page from Karl Rove’s playbook here.
Immediately north of Waller County is Grimes County, where the County Judge (a strange Texan term for an elected chief executive of a county government) is also the co-chair of Texans Against High Speed Rail, and he’s making the same claims:
There is not one privately funded, constructed and operated high-speed rail in the world,” said Ben Leman, the county judge in Grimes County, northwest of Houston.
“The concern is obviously taxpayer subsidy,” Leman said. “It’s just a black hole. Look at Amtrak.”
The final parallel between California HSR opposition and Texas HSR opposition is that the Texan HSR deniers are now working to bring their Congressional representatives into the fight:
Senators Lois Kolkhorst and Charles Schwertner and State Representatives Kyle Kacal, John Raney and Leighton Schubert signed a letter asking Texans in Congress to oppose any application by Texas Central Railway to the Surface Transportation Board.
“For the rural counties impacted by the proposed routes, this project would only serve as a detriment. Although rural counties may benefit from a few jobs during the construction phase, the long-term costs far outweigh any temporary benefit. This project holds real consequences for rural constituents, their property and their livelihoods. Private property interests will be taken by eminent domain. Farm and ranchland, often held by families for generations, will be divided, creating a loss in access and a loss in revenue for those who rely on farming and ranching to make a living. The value of nearby land will decrease due to sight, noise and restricted use of property caused by the high-speed rail.”
Those concerns sound almost exactly like what you hear from anti-HSR folks in the San Joaquin Valley. I wonder when Jeff Denham is going to fly to rural Texas to grandstand with the locals against their HSR project.
Again, I mention all of this not to mock the Texas HSR project, which I would like to see built. I’m pointing this out to show that the California High Speed Rail Authority isn’t responsible for HSR opposition, especially in rural California. Simply by proposing an HSR route in the first place, the state offended right-wing ideological values, which tend to be most deeply held outside the cities. There was simply nothing they could do to avoid that opposition, and so far they have done a good job navigating it.
What is happening in Texas suggests that the real issue facing HSR isn’t what route is chosen or how it’s funded, but which political party is in power in the state and federal governments where an HSR route is proposed. If Republicans ran California, its HSR project would be dead. If Democrats ran Texas, its HSR project would likely be better able to overcome this opposition. If Democrats ran Congress, these appeals from rural areas would fall on deaf ears. As long as Democrats control the White House it is certain that the STB will approve these routes.
I know that a lot of people who are interested in HSR would love for these projects to be developed and evaluated on their merits. But they’re not. HSR is fundamentally political, and it is deeply partisan. Texas HSR’s biggest problem is going to be the fact that Republicans control the state legislature. Unless they plan to build the tracks in the middle of Interstate 45 I am not quite sure how they will overcome this opposition.