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Texas Budget Wall Could Stop Bullet Train Plan

DALLAS -- A potential budget wall banning state assistance to a privately financed $12 billion Texas bullet train could stop the proposal in its tracks, proponents warn of the latest legislative effort to torpedo the project.

The state Senate Finance Committee late last week added a provision to its proposed two-year state budget that would prohibit the Texas Department of Transportation from spending funds to help plan, build, or operate the train between Dallas and Houston. The committee's vote was 14-1, with Sen. Royce West, a Democrat and bond attorney from Dallas, as the sole opponent.

Texas Central Partners, the sponsor of the proposed privately financed rail line, said it would not rely on federal or state funding for the project but must work with TxDOT on planning and other issues.

"Texas Central engineers and employees need to be able to coordinate with TxDOT on the planning, engineering, and construction of the high-speed train to accommodate the state's growth," the company said. "By adding this rider, it creates vague and ambiguous questions about roles and responsibilities between the project and TxDOT that could put the project at risk."

The budget rider would allow TxDOT to continue coordinating the high-speed rail project's environmental review with federal officials.

The Federal Railroad Administration is expected to release a draft environmental review later this year or in early 2018. TxDOT is providing technical assistance to the review process.

The FRA had earlier selected a preferred route corridor that includes an existing freight rail line and electric transmission lines. The bullet train would have its own dedicated right-of-way and would not share tracks or infrastructure with the freight trains.

The budget provision would ensure that the state of Texas does not become involved in financing the project or operating the rail project if it goes bankrupt, said state Sen. Charles Schwertner.

Schwertner, a Republican from Georgetown, said he was skeptical of the sponsor's statements that the project would not need any financial assistance from the state. He cited a recent estimate from the Reason Foundation that the Texas Central system could cost Texas taxpayers up to $21.5 billion over 40 years if ridership falls below current estimates.

"If we are being told that this is never going to take any bailouts, they need to put their money where their mouth is," he said of Texas Central Partners. "We should not be in the high-speed rail planning business."

Texas Central Partners renewed its pledge of no public funding following the committee vote.

"The Bullet Train is committed to not request any state grants or taxpayer subsidies to operate the train," the company said in a statement. "None is asked for and none is expected. This budget rider language therefore is unnecessary and as written is a job killer."

Schwertner is a member of a bloc of mostly rural lawmakers who have filed some two dozen bills in the 2017 legislative session seeking to hinder the proposed 240-mile rail system between the two cities using Japanese-developed technology.

Texas Central president Tim Keith said the bullet trains would cut the lengthy journey between the two cities to 90 minutes from three to five hours by car.

The company is asking federal regulators for a new safety rule that would allow its trains to operate at over 205 mph, Keith said.

"There's no rules set yet for driving a train 200 miles an hour in the United States," Keith said. "We're having those rules written for our system."

FRA's current standards allow a maximum train speed of 150 mph. Amtrak's Acela trains in the Northeast are the only trains currently operating at that speed.

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