The U.S. House Subcommittee on Railroads, Pipelines, and Hazardous Materials heard testimony about the funding of high-speed rail projects in the country, including the Texas Central Railroad project proposed between Dallas and Houston.
Aguilar asserted that the project based on Japanese Shinkansen technology will provide benefits of safety, jobs, and environmental protection during his testimony.
For instance, Aguilar contended that Texas Central will prevent at least 800 road fatalities by 2100 by avoiding car crashes on I-45, which Popular Mechanics claims is the highway with the highest fatality rate in the country.
According to Aguilar, the high-speed rail will eliminate over 8 million tons of carbon dioxide emissions by 2100 while creating jobs, including for rural communities and minority and disabled individuals.
The project will cost $24 billion to construct, Aguilar told the committee. However, the “total cost will depend on funding sources, interest rates, risk premiums, and other factors.”
So far investors, including Japan and 22 Texas families, have contributed $700 million to the project, he added. Texas Central aims to secure funding from the federal government, Aguilar admitted, possibly through access to the Railroad Rehabilitation and Improvement Financing Program or other similar infrastructure programs.
However, Trey Duhon, county judge for Waller County that lies along the proposed route, urged the committee members to invest transportation dollars elsewhere, like in the northeast where the population already uses rail transportation and the investment would be worthwhile.
Duhon, who said he is not opposed to high-speed rail generally, believes this project is not viable and has been promoted under false pretenses.
In contrast to Aguilar’s claim that the project is “shovel ready,” Duhon pointed out that Texas Central cannot begin “any construction or operation unless and until it submits a full application for a construction permit, which TCR has yet to file.” Duhon believes that will take years to complete.
“Have we not learned anything from the taxpayer-backed disaster in California?” Duhon asked rhetorically.
He submitted to the committee that the project was originally evaluated by the Federal Railroad Administration (FRA) based on private financing and a cost of $10 billion. However, as Aguilar admitted, the project will now seek public funding, and the cost has increased to at least $24 billion or possibly $30 billion as stated by Chairman Drayton McLane in a letter last spring.
Additionally, Duhon insisted that the FRA evaluated the feasibility of the line based on faulty ridership numbers, which he said a Reason Foundation study found to be vastly overestimated. He also said that FRA refused to meet with the Waller County Sub-Regional Planning Commission, a group of local officials in rural Texas, to discuss issues with the route.
For instance, the town of Waller, which lies along the proposed line, has been planning a new city center for decades, Duhon said, and the route would go right through it. The FRA would not discuss possible route alternatives or impacts with them, he said.
“We just ask that the local communities be treated as equal partners,” Duhon implored the committee in his criticism of the FRA’s evaluation process.
Duhon also raised environmental and safety concerns about changes to the land grade along the route in areas that already have flooding issues, impacts to school bus routes, and concerns about the safety of a natural gas mine that is only a few feet from the proposed line.
In April, landowners, counties, and high-speed rail opponents filed a lawsuit in federal court challenging the federal environment impact statement issued last fall.
Rep. Bruce Westerman, (R-AR-4) asked Aguilar why Texas Central had not considered alternative technologies like hyperloop that can be built in the highway right-of-way and doesn’t have grade crossing issues.
Aguilar replied that they are looking for a more immediate solution for a route that is already congested. Hyperloop is still an emerging technology, whereas the Shinkansen technology has been used in Japan for over 50 years.
The Texas Supreme Court has yet to rule on whether Texas Central has eminent domain authority to obtain needed land along the route. The 13th Texas Court of Appeals ruled in the railroad’s favor last year.
Several bills have been proposed in the Texas Legislature this session regarding high-speed rail and landowner’s rights, but none have made it out of committee and onto the floor for a vote.
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Kim Roberts is a reporter for the Texan in the DFW metroplex area where she has lived for over twenty years. She has a Juris Doctor from Baylor University Law School and a Bachelor's in government from Angelo State University. In her free time, Kim home schools her daughter and coaches high school extemporaneous speaking and apologetics. She has been happily married to her husband for 23 years, has three wonderful children, and two dogs.