Proponents of high-speed rail sometimes note that China has been able to build high-speed rail far more rapidly than the United States. There are a variety of obvious problems with the comparison, but one barrier to fast high-speed rail deployment in the United States is our system of property rights. While China can unilaterally remove residents and landholders from their property to build the government’s desired infrastructure projects, in the United States property rights are rightfully protected and authorities must enter into a detailed process to try to seize private land.
Texas Central Railway, the private company planning to build a 240-mile bullet train line connecting Dallas and Houston with a stop in the Brazos Valley, seems set to try to acquire or seize thousands of parcels from Texas landowners.
With a top speed of 200 miles per hour, Texas Central hopes that its planned high-speed train will lure travelers currently flying or driving between Dallas and Houston. The company also hopes it will induce new travel between the large cities and spur additional economic growth in Texas. The project’s construction is supposedly privately financed with ticket revenues paying for the train’s maintenance and operations. Texas Central claims that the train will turbocharge economic growth in Texas.
According to its final Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) published by the Federal Railroad Administration in March 2020, Texas Central Railway will need to acquire approximately 2,000 parcels (permanently or temporarily) of land from private owners to construct and operate the route. Many of these parcels are portions of family farms, whose size and viability would be reduced by Texas Central’s acquisition plan.
One of the affected farms belongs to Carma Sullivan and has been in her husband’s family since 1880. Sullivan told WFAA-TV that the family has operated the farm for six generations “because of our love for the land and our love for agriculture. That’s why we’re here, and why we want to stay here.”
In some cases, the train’s right-of-way would bisect a farm, leaving the owner with fields both to the left and right of the railway. Most of the rail line is supposed to be elevated, which would theoretically give landowners a chance to easily move from one side of their farm to the other. But, as one landowner on Texas Central’s right-of-way told us, the railroad is not offering easements, so it would not be legal to walk or drive a farm vehicle beneath the bullet train overpass, cutting off access to half of their property and destroying some of its value.
Those who live on farms along the Texas Central train’s right-of-way can also expect a potential reduction in their perceived quality of life. Instead of living in a quiet home in the countryside setting they chose, many landowners could be living near railroad tracks and experiencing the noise of passing trains. Even in noisier cities, many urban residents are disturbed by elevated trains. In fact, protests from nearby residents were one factor that caused New York City to demolish several of its elevated lines in the 1950s.
Just about any construction of major infrastructure projects in the Dallas-Houston corridor is going to require taking land. In fact, the federal government has paused a planned highway widening of I-45 in Houston because of the large number of properties that would be taken in communities of color. However, there are a few differences between the I-45 project and the rail line.
The I-45 project expands an existing highway corridor. While no one wants or appreciates their land being taken, people living very close to major urban freeways probably have a somewhat higher expectation that the highway could be expanded than farmers impacted by the proposed train. Texas Central is building the project in an open space, where there was never any expectation of high-speed rail.
The Texas Department of Transportation (TxDOT) has been studying the expansion of I-45 for more than 10 years. TxDOT proposed taking 296 units, most of which are less than an acre in size, for the I-45 expansion. Texas Central needs to take, nearly 2,000, many of which are sites with 50 or more acres.
Texas Central could have reduced its impact on local residents by choosing another corridor to construct its train. One option would have been to build the train along I-45. But, because of the curves in the highway, the train would have been limited to speeds of 150 miles per hour.
Anytime the power of eminent domain is used, the government is claiming the project will produce public benefits. The I-45 expansion is needed to reduce Houston’s traffic congestion and it would add managed lanes that will provide faster mass transit service to riders of all income groups. Texas Central claims it will “spur economic development” across the state and offer a “more pleasant and productive experience” that “will be an oasis for business and leisure travelers alike.” But the Texas Supreme Court ruled that’s enough to take the land it needs:
Texas Central Railroad, according to the Texas Supreme Court, is a railroad, ending a five-year legal battle over the controversial high-speed rail company’s right to use state eminent domain laws. The ruling, unless a federal court intervenes or stops the company in another way, clears the path for backers of the Houston-to-Dallas bullet train to acquire land over the objections of landowners unwilling to sell.
Another option would have been to choose one of the three other alternative corridors in Waller County. Critics note the county’s population is 54% minority and the train “will have a disproportionately negative impact” on its residents. The EIS, required for all major transportation projects, analyzed four different corridors in the county; at least two of which would have affected fewer communities of color in the county
A third option would have been to use BNSF’s or Union Pacific’s existing rail corridor to avoid Waller County entirely. However, Texas Central chose to use a communication system that interferes with the freight railroads communication system making it impossible for Texas Central to safely share right-of-way with freight rail lines.
With the Biden administration showing a keen interest in how infrastructure projects impact communities of color, the administration could choose to take a second look at the Texas Central project—just as it is with the less intrusive I-45 widening in Houston. As William Papadopoulos of development firm Delta Troy Interests wrote to the U.S. Department of Transportation in response to the Texas Central EIS:
By dividing and isolating some areas and neighborhoods from others, the proposed high-speed rail project will reinforce and, in many cases, exacerbate geographic, racial, and income disparities along its path. At its very essence, the proposed project serves affluent travelers and business executives at the expense of the rural residents in areas in between who must bear the brunt of the environmental, economic and social degradation and segregation wrought by the project. While the project’s promoters may thrive financially, the many residents negatively impacted by the proposed project will be literally cut off from the economic opportunity of the American dream.
While Texas Central is promising to benefit travelers going back and forth between Houston and Dallas, it would do so by interrupting the lives and livelihoods of many Texans living and farming along the route. In most cases, it will not make sense for those farmers and residents of rural counties between Dallas and Houston to use the rail line themselves, but they will nonetheless be expected to shoulder many of the human costs of Texas Central’s construction and operation.