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The Dallas-Houston high-speed rail project dodged a bullet this week when lawmakers hashing out the state budget released their decision to strike a provision that could have delayed the project.
A committee of Texas House and Senate members ditched language that would have prevented the Texas Department of Transportation from coordinating with a high-speed rail company so its project could cross state highways until a court definitively affirms the company's ability to use eminent domain with an unappealable ruling. That provision, called a budget "rider," could have delayed the project for several years, according to Patrick McShan, an attorney for an opposition group and more than 100 landowners along the train's planned route.
Project developer Texas Central Partners LLC lauded the legislative move. The company has been battling legislative efforts that it says could cripple the project and impose unfair requirements that other similar projects, like natural gas pipelines, don’t have.
“Today’s action ensures the project continues to be treated like any other major infrastructure project in Texas,” said Holly Reed, Texas Central's managing director of external affairs.
But project opponents say several bills targeting the project would provide “common sense” regulations to protect private property owners in the rail’s path. They chalked up this week's decision to the lobbying power of Texas Central.
“It just goes to show you that high-paid lobbyists are more effective than the truth when it comes to Austin,” said Kyle Workman, president and chairman of grassroots opposition group Texans Against High-Speed Rail.
Yet that was not what led to the language's removal, according to one legislator.
The Senate added the rider in its proposed 2020-21 budget, but the House's spending plan didn't include the language. So that was one of several differences that a conference committee of members from both chambers are hashing out behind closed doors. Once that process is done, both chambers will vote on the revised budget.
Houston Democrat state Rep. Armando Walle, one of the members of the conference committee, said the rider was removed out of fear that a lawmaker could argue the language changes general law, something that House rules don't allow the budget to do. If such an argument were successful, that could have threatened the entire spending plan.
"In order to not have the whole appropriations bill go down, I think that was the safest way to address the issue," Walle said.
While project supporters and opponents say that the legislative fight isn't over just yet, it’s unclear if any other anti-rail bills will gain traction before the legislative session ends in less than two weeks. Project opponents were pushing for so many bills this session that an entire subcommittee was created to tackle the subject.
However, their efforts in the House look bleak: A number of House bills that could have delayed or crippled the project failed to reach the chamber floor last week before a key deadline. Two anti-rail measures in the Senate received hearings, but they still haven’t budged from the Senate Transportation Committee. The Senate budget provision has advanced the furthest of any anti-rail measure this year.
Workman said his grassroots group plans to continue looking for every opportunity to advance its aims. He remained tight-lipped about any possible amendments it might pursue, but he said his group has already successfully raised more awareness for the cause this session. Plus, he said there's still legal ambiguity about Texas Central's claims that the company can use eminent domain, which would allow it to seize land it needs and forcibly buy it from owners who don’t want to sell.
Texas law allows railroads to use eminent domain. Opponents argue that the company doesn’t count as a railroad because it’s not operating any trains — and a Leon County Court upheld that viewpoint in February.
“They still have a problem. They’re not a railroad,” said Workman. "We don’t have to pass anything — the landscape is still in our favor."
But Texas Central says it is a railroad, and Reed touted a Harris County court decision that sided with the company, saying the company feels confident that it will win an appeals case.
“To date, the legislature has not passed any harmful legislation to the project,” she said. “It’s a recognition that the majority of the state sees the project as positive and having positive impacts on the overall state.”