Sunday, February 08, 2009

"It just seems like every time we turn around, someone's got us in their cross hairs.”

Landowners question high-speed rail


By Peggy Fikac
San Antonio Express-News
Copyright 2009

AUSTIN — For travelers, a 200-mph train connecting San Antonio, Houston and Dallas-Fort Worth may sound like a dream. But for some landowners along the proposed Texas T-Bone high-speed rail route, it's a question mark that they fear could easily turn into a nightmare.

“From a rural, agricultural standpoint, we're very concerned. It just seems like every time we turn around, someone's got us in their cross hairs,” said Central Texas farmer Richard Cortese, a Bell County commissioner and a leader in the Texas Farm Bureau.

Despite efforts by high-speed rail backers to build a partnership with local communities, some landowners are wary, partly because the fresh rail push comes after heated battles over the Trans-Texas Corridor, a massive proposal pushed by Gov. Rick Perry for a network of highways, tollways, pipelines and rails.

State officials recently buried the Trans-Texas Corridor's name after a backlash from property owners who feared their land would be devalued or taken. But “it hasn't gone away,” Cortese said.

“If you were to take a template of the Trans-Texas Corridor and lay it over this high-speed rail issue, I think you would find that many of the concerns would be very much the same,” said the Texas Farm Bureau's Gene Hall. “Fixing eminent domain (strengthening private property rights) is the first step toward increasing our comfort level with any of these projects.”

Several proposals are percolating in the Legislature to strengthen property rights. Hall said one key element is to ensure that property owners are compensated not only when they're forced to sell their land for a public project but when access to their property is diminished, affecting its value.

Besides the property-rights concern, Ralph Snyder of Snyder Salvage in Holland raised issues including train noise and who'd be on the hook for mitigating it.

He and Cortese said they understand the need for transportation in a growing state but that they want a detailed plan before making up their minds about the $12 billion to $18 billion rail proposal that would follow the Texas T-Bone — from Dallas-Fort Worth through Austin to San Antonio and branching off in Temple to go to Houston.

“We haven't seen any financial prototypes on this. I think that's our concern,” said Cortese, with questions including the expense to local governments if they're responsible for train stations.

Backers envision a project that's primarily privately financed but stems from a partnership with local governments. They'd like to have it running by 2020.

This legislative session, they're asking for state help, including tax exemptions for companies that would build the project.

“There's a perception about rural people that they are backward and they don't understand the problem. That's just simply not true,” Snyder said. “They want the studies done before a project is undertaken to make sure the right thing is being done.”

A key high-speed rail backer said details still are being developed because supporters want to ensure the proposal bubbles up from communities instead of being seen as handed down from the state capital.

“We want to involve the communities and the counties and the interest groups in that planning process, as opposed to ‘You bring this back when you have a plan and then we'll shoot at it,'” said Temple Mayor Bill Jones, vice chairman of the nonprofit Texas High Speed Rail and Transportation Corp.

Local communities will decide whether to contribute financially to such things as building a train station, he said.

Among key points, Jones noted the consortium includes elected leaders, cities and counties, among others, and that backers have said they want to elevate the rail where necessary to reduce the effect on property.

“We are committing as best we can possibly commit at this stage to elevate as much of the system as we can where it's necessary,” Jones said.

Property owners said the prospect of the rail being elevated would help address their concerns because it would allow access to land on both sides of the track.

Former Harris County Judge Robert Eckels, chairman of the nonprofit corporation, said the group is sensitive to local concerns and would want to stay along existing routes and minimize the infringement on private property. “It's not only good politics,” Eckels said. “It's cheaper that way.”

Portions © 2009 San Antonio Express-News:

To search TTC News Archives click HERE

To view the Trans-Texas Corridor Blog click HERE