The Corner

Economy & Business

This Is Exactly the Wrong Time for Another High-Speed Train Boondoggle

(Ralph Orlowski/Reuters)

You’d think an economic crisis wouldn’t be the right time for Texas to chug ahead with a grandiose $30 billion plan for a high-speed rail project between Dallas and Houston.

A similar rail project in California has seen massive cost overruns and just been dramatically downsized after Governor Gavin Newsom declared, “There’s been too little oversight and not enough transparency.”

But the private Texas Central Railway (TCR) project has decided that now is a good time to revive its struggling project with Washington subsidies hopefully added in. They’ve just won a key court battle that may allow them the use of eminent domain to seize private property for their rail corridor.

TCR pledges their train will eventually speed passengers along the 240-mile corridor between Dallas and Houston in under 90 minutes. The Japanese government is subsidizing the project because it would use the same equipment made famous by the Shinkansen bullet-train line.

Learning from California’s cost overruns, Texas’s Train Trippers have long vowed not to use any federal, state, or local tax money for construction. But they’ve sometimes let slip their true intentions. Ron Kirk, a former mayor of Dallas who has been employed by TCR, has admitted the group would “aggressively pursue” federal loans for the project. Government loans are often forgiven or forgotten, with taxpayers left holding the bag.

This year, the coronavirus stimulus money also created a possible avenue to federal funds for this project. In April, Drayton McLane, the chairman of Texas Central, wrote that “between the Japanese government funding and the monies we hope to receive from President Trump’s infrastructure stimulus through the Department of Transportation, along with private equity” he hoped construction could begin later this year. There’s also the chance of funds coming from any infrastructure bill passed by Congress.

The court case allowing Texas Central the right of eminent domain to lay its tracks is highly controversial.

“If ever there was a ruling that created ‘the Wild, Wild, West’ of eminent domain authority, this is it,” said Blake Beckham, an attorney for landowners opposing the railroad. Justice Nora Longoria reversed a lower court ruling and decided that Texas Central was both a railroad company and an interurban electric railway, despite operating no trains yet.

Beckham said the ruling creates a dangerous precedent that would allow anybody paying $300 in fees to immediately obtain the extraordinary power of eminent domain by simply filing papers with the Texas Secretary of State and declaring they were running a railroad. The case will be appealed to the Texas Supreme Court.

In the meantime, some Texas officials are trying to stop the use of any federal funds to prop up TCR’s railroad scheme. Congressman Kevin Brady, the former chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee, says “crucial taxpayer resources should be wholly focused on solving our current public health crisis. Given the concrete reality that TCR’s project now has zero chance of ever materializing, no more federal taxpayer resources should be wasted on this.”

Over a century ago, the famous con man George C. Parker “sold” the Brooklyn Bridge to several gullible people, even though he didn’t own it. He would say: “Have I got a bridge for you.” Today, the truly gullible are being lured by those with a new sales pitch: “Boy, have I got a high-speed rail line for you.”