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Texans Fight Over Fate |of High-Speed Rail

HOUSTON (CN)- The $20 billion Texas high-speed railway project between Dallas and Houston is rounding out its fourth year of planning as advocates and critics battle over its fate.

Texas Central Partners LLC was created in 2012 to provide Texas commuters with "a safe, clean and convenient alternative to driving or flying," Texas Central said in a statement.

The railway will use the Japanese-designed N700-I Bullet, which "consumes one eighth the amount of energy per seat and expends one-twelfth less carbon dioxide than a Boeing 777-200," Texas Central said.

Texas Central hopes to zip travelers the 240 miles from Houston to Dallas or back in 90 minutes: less than half the 3½ hours required on freeways.

Texas Central says the project could spur development of thousands of square feet of commercial real estate at the rile terminal in southern Dallas.

Texas Central CEO Tim Keith said at a transportation symposium hosted by the Texas Tribune on Thursday that the Dallas terminal would bring shops, entertainment venues and other businesses to the area.

But critics are wary of the impact the project will have on landowners and municipalities along the route.

Kyle Workman, president of Texans Against High-Speed Rail, said at the symposium that the project is not worth sacrificing rural Texans' quality of life.

He said train noise would disturb landowners, and interfere with enjoyment of private land. He also criticized Texas Central's "lack of transparency."

Workman said if the project was really a good one, Texas Central should be willing to share its statistical data.

Texas Central has already begun contacting private landowners about buying their properties, according to the Star-Telegram in Fort Worth. The Star-Telegram estimated that the cost of the trains alone would range from $12 billion to $18 billion.

Because the proposed railway will not cross state lines, Texas Central can use Texas eminent domain laws to acquire land.

Grimes County Judge Ben Leman questioned the feasibility of using eminent domain to complete the project. Leman added at the symposium that Texas Central may not have eminent domain rights, because it failed to register as a railroad before the Dec. 31, 2012 deadline.

County judges in Texas are not judicial officers; they are chiefs of the county commission.

Keith responded that he would prefer to purchase private property directly, calling condemnation and purchase through eminent domain "the last thing I want to do."

The Waller County Sub-Regional Planning Commission sued the Texas Department of Transportation on Oct. 26, on the planning stage of the project.

The lawsuit in Travis County Court claims that TxDOT refuses to "coordinate or attend coordination meetings with the Waller County Sub-Regional Planning Commission, saying that it has been asked by federal authorities not to coordinate with local planning commissions."

Waller County is immediately northwest of Houston. It says the rail route will pass through "the heart of Waller County and Waller County business and commercial interests."

The county says the Federal Railroad Administration "conducted a four-month analysis of seven corridor alternatives," and chose Texas Central's preferred plan based on "economic viability determinations."

Judge Leman also lamented the lack of coordination between local municipalities, saying there has been "little to no interaction between the eight counties in the corridor" where Texas Central proposes to build.

He called this a "complete circumvention of the normal process."

Keith said Texas Central is "adjusting" its plans to work within the present infrastructure.

Texas Central planned to use state and federal loans and bonds to help fund the project, but Workman said he was not convinced whether Texans were "ready to subsidize" the high-speed railway.

Keith responded directly, saying the project "will never be subsidized by taxpayers."

The Texas Central railway is a private venture funded through private entities, with no need for taxpayer funding, Harris County Commissioner Jack Cagle said at the symposium.

"I like the idea of private enterprise," Cagle said.

He said that the high-speed rail would encourage local transportation authorities to expand their infrastructure and make both methods "revenue positive."

Texas Central was not able to provide an update on the project this week. According to its website, it expects to begin construction "as early as" 2017 and passenger service in 2021.

Texas Central claims the will bring "more than $36 billion into the state economy over the next 25 years."

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