Don't mess with their roads.
Turns out you don't need to rely on public money to be hated as a U.S. high-speed rail project. That much is becoming clear from the battering being given to a big Texas bullet train plan that's privately funded.
A quick recap: Texas Central Railway, a private firm, is pushing a very promising proposal to link Dallas and Houston with a Japanese-style high-speed train capable of doing the trip at 200 mph. By relying on investors rather than taxpayers, the plan seemed poised to avoid a lot of the fiscal (slash ideological) squabbles that have plagued its federally-funded counterparts in California, Florida, Ohio, and Wisconsin.
But with the project advancing toward route selection and environmental review, an intense opposition has emerged. It's taken the form of anti-HSR groups (e.g. No Texas Central and Texans Against High Speed Rail), local legislation designed to stop the project, packed and panicked community meetings, and pleas for Congressional representatives to block any applications made by Texas Central to the Surface Transportation Board.
So far the high-speed rail pushback seems to be falling into three broad categories.
It's not a road!
One state representative who opposes the project has proposed a bill that "would require the elected officials of every city and county along the route to approve the project," reports the Fort Worth Star-Telegram.* With the train running through some heavily rural areas, such a law would create an enormous challenge if passed. At the moment the bill has been sent to a legislative committee.
The champion of the bill, Will Metcalf, has given several reasons for opposing the plan. But one of his statements makes clear that he just doesn't see trains as a viable transportation alternative. Via the Star-Telegram:
"We need more roads for citizens to travel to ease our existing roadways,” Metcalf said. "We do not need a high-speed railway in Texas that will only benefit a few, while at the same time disturbing thousands of citizens within its path.”
Metcalf isn't alone in this sentiment. Another elected official, Ben Lehman of Grimes County, has questioned whether the train will attract enough riders. He's also been quoted as saying that the 18 million people who drive between Houston and Dallas each year have "gone through this decision-making process" and concluded "it's more feasible to drive."
Exactly how Lehman knows how drivers might react to a high-speed rail option that does not yet exist was not reported.
It involves eminent domain!
Other local officials are pushing a bill that "would strip firms developing high-speed rail projects from eminent domain authority," reports the Texas Tribune. Fears of misused eminent domain are both valid and welcomed in any democratic setting. But what's strange here is that the bill targets high-speed rail despite the fact that lots of private firms in Texas can wield eminent domain for the greater public good; via the Tribune:
Currently, hundreds of private firms have eminent domain authority in Texas, including pipeline companies, utility companies and telecommunication firms. More than a dozen private railroad companies also have that authority, according to an unofficial list maintained by the state comptroller.
The CEO of Texas Central reportedly asked at a recent hearing that his railway not be punished "just because it goes faster than other trains." And the company has given every indication that it would use this power judiciously. It reportedly won't auction off unused land (as California has done), and it's also planning to use its private pockets to compensate landowners generously. Here's Robert Eckles of Texas Central, again via the Tribune:
“We have the ability to pay more because it’s not taxpayer dollars,” Eckels said. “We, in fact, can pay more as a private company and expect that we will be paying more.”
It won't actually be privately funded!
Which leads to the final major criticism of the privately funded Texas Central plan: that it won't actually be privately funded. Or, rather, that it will start out privately funded but fail to meet its ridership goals and call on the public for a subsidy. Here's HSR opponent Kyle Workman making that case, via the Courier of Montgomery County:
“There are no profitable high-speed rail lines in the world,” Workman said. “They are all heavily taxpayer supported.”
It's perfectly reasonable and responsible for elected officials to clarify through regulations that state taxpayers can't end up on the hook for any Texas Central shortcomings. For the record, though, there are lots of profitable high-speed rail lines in the world. If you count Acela, which easily covers its operating costs through fares, there's even one right in the United States.
So that's the latest from Texas. It may be impossible for any mega-project—privately funded or not—to escape the type of pushback mounting against the Dallas-Houston HSR plan. And again, the democratic process not only allows but encourages this sort of scrutiny. It also works best when each side makes its case on the best possible facts, rather than the worst possible fears.
*CORRECTION: A previous version of this story misidentified the Fort Worth Star-Telegram as the Dallas Star-Telegram.