Property owners disappointed as bills for transparency in high-speed train project fail

Texas Central High Speed Rail Route
Texas Central High Speed Rail Route(KBTX)
Published: Jun. 8, 2023 at 10:41 PM CDT
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AUSTIN, Texas (KBTX) -Several bills aimed at protecting property rights across the state were left on the House floor this legislative session, leaving some property owners feeling overlooked.

A number of those bills are linked to the Houston to Dallas high-speed train project, which would impact property owners across the Brazos Valley.

Landowners express disappointment, stating that they feel legislators let them down once again.

Their main request was for companies to be more transparent about projects that impact communities. However, one lawmaker’s opposition to a particular bill resulted in its derailment, citing concerns about discouraging future investors from doing business in the state.

Harris County resident Christie Parker and board member of Texans Against High-Speed Rail is one of many residents along the proposed Houston to Dallas train route who hoped that lawmakers would address their concerns during this legislative session.

“I just feel very disheartened that the session ended up this way,” Parker expressed.

“I think the public deserves these answers. Since the last estimates on this project demonstrated that it’s going to be more than 900 million a year for the next 40 years, someone will have to pay this deficit, whether it’s the taxpayers or a private company,” Parker added. “I don’t think the government or a private company can absorb it. Before burdening our children and grandchildren with such bills, the public demands transparency in the project. We didn’t get that this session, so it was very disappointing.”

One bill, in particular, that residents were counting on was HB 2357, authored by (R) House District 15 Representative Steve Toth and (R) House District 8 Representative Cody Harris. The bill proposed that rail operators disclose their funding and financing methods for projects on an annual basis.

During a hearing last month, Texas Central Railroad CEO Michael Bui spoke out against the proposed bill, arguing that it is unnecessary and could be harmful to Texas Central’s operations. Bui testified that disclosing information such as ridership studies, investor names, and financial plans could jeopardize companies interested in developing critical infrastructure.

“These are proprietary and confidential, and I think any private company would hesitate to put this out there to be used for others’ benefit to their detriment,” said Bui. “The federal agency overseeing the project has stated its intent to review the financial feasibility of the project as part of its thorough review to approve the project as it does with other projects.”

Parker and the more than 100 landowners and county officials that made multiple trips to the state capitol this legislative session say they have been seeking answers for more than a decade and believe that they should be allowed to move on with their lives if the project is not going to happen. They also feel that the uncertainty surrounding the project has made it difficult to sell or make any modifications to their property.

“Texans Against High-Speed Rail, we’re not really against high-speed rail we’re against this project, how it was brought forth, and how TCR, Texas Central Rail, has not been truthful through the process,” Grimes County Judge Joe Fauth said after appearing before the house committee last month.

“The bill is simply about transparency for the public. It only required information that any normal company would provide upon request. None of the questions were difficult and they could easily be answered by a company proposing to build a more than 30 plus billion-dollar project,” Parker said.

However, that bill was stopped in its tracks on the House floor after time during the debate expired forcing the bill to be contested under legislature rule 6 section 24.

(D) House District 111 Representative Yvonne Davis of Dallas spoke in opposition to the bill and expressed her concern that it would discourage potential investors from doing business in the state. This is the same argument she presented on the House floor back in May.

“If and when we are able to get this project off the ground, it’s important that we don’t overregulate before it comes to fruition,” said Rep. Davis.

“Transparency is important. I hope they will get their transparency. My opposition had to do with leaving an opportunity for us to have someone bring in a high-speed rail project. It had nothing to do with that company,” Davis said.

However, Davis did acknowledge that homeowners’ request for transparency from Texas Central was a fair and valid concern.

“I’m not speaking in favor of them. I’m speaking in favor of high-speed rail projects in general,” Davis said.

Despite the setback, Parker and other landowners are grateful for the lawmakers that did support the legislation and vow not to give up their fight, not only for themselves but for all Texans.

KBTX Reached out to Texas Central ahead of publication to get their feedback regarding the legislation.