Whether or not the budget rider will survive remains to be seen.
There’s trouble brewing in Texas. The big, privately funded high-speed rail plan to connect Dallas and Houston evidently hangs in the balance at the moment, as the state legislature hashes out the details of its 2016-17 budget. One of the central sticking points? A legislative rider attached to the budget that would all-but nix the fast train, reports Aman Batheja of the Texas Tribune.
Batheja later tweeted the rider in full:
At the time of this post, the rider remained present in the latest Senate amendment printing of the budget bill—tucked away on Page 1810 of the PDF. Local reports described the rider as being “quietly added” over a weekend earlier this month by State Senator Charles Schwertner. Its appearance immediately drew the ire of Dallas Mayor Mike Rawlings, who supports the train, as well as newly elected Arlington Mayor Jeff Williams. Here’s Rawlings on May 10:
"I know it wasn't publicly debated," Rawlings said. "It was kind of put in in the dark of night."
The Texas Central Railway (TCR), which is organizing the high-speed rail proposal, has repeatedly insisted that it won’t rely on public funding. But a lot of locals, some under false impressions of the project’s intentions, remain wary of that promise. There’s even been some talk that Southwest Airlines will oppose the effort on similar grounds, though the company has denied those reports and says it doesn’t yet have a position on the project.
The budget rider states that none of the funding being appropriated to the Department of Transportation ”may be used for the purposes of subsidizing or assisting in the construction of high-speed passenger rail.” On its face, that stipulation seems innocuous enough, and perhaps even a reasonable taxpayer protection. But project supporters believe the broad nature of the wording could put the train in a legal bind.
A number of common regulatory tasks that Texas DOT might perform could be seen, at least legally, as “assisting” with the high-speed rail project. These include sharing basic information with TCR, providing data to the Federal Railroad Administration, or participating in any other way with the project’s environmental impact review. CityLab is told such limitations don’t apply to other projects that might normally fall under part of the DOT’s regulatory purview, such as a freight railroad or a private airport.
State Senator Jane Nelson, lead budget negotiator for that body of the legislature, told the Tribune Wednesday she was considering “seven different versions of amendments to the rider” in an attempt to reach a compromise. The fight isn’t likely to be an easy one. Here’s Nelson:
“There is some question of whether that would handicap it to the point that you couldn’t build it,” Nelson said Wednesday of the rider. “There are very strong feelings on both sides of that issue.”
We’ll update this post with the latest as it emerges.
UPDATE: Lawmakers voted 6-4 to remove the rider in question.