And my answer will be: Good point. Maybe I’m speaking to an empty room, and that’s fine. The issue still needs to be discussed, even if the comments and social media shares are scarce.
Six years ago, The Leader began covering the proposed Houston-to-Dallas high speed rail project headed by a group called Texas Central Railroad. Normally, such a massive story with statewide implications wouldn’t fall on the radar of a community media organization like ours. In this case, though, the bullet train will have an impact on our community – from a route proposal that could influence our traffic to a train station in the hapless Northwest Mall location.
Without boring you with the details, it’s safe to say that placing the main Houston terminal for this train – assuming it every really happens – would have an enormous impact on traffic patterns along 18th and 11th Streets, directly into the Heights and along north-south streets like T.C. Jester and Ella. And that doesn’t even begin to broach the impact having hundreds and thousands of riders would have once they need transportation away from the train station to destinations downtown, the Energy Corridor or The Woodlands.
If – and “if” seems to be a key word here – the high speed rail ever opens, our entire community will feel an enormous impact, in my opinion.
Earlier this week, Texas Central received some good news from the federal government.
“Your Texas High-Speed Train is two steps closer to construction…,” read Texas Central’s website. The particulars won’t mean much to a majority of us, and there’s differing opinions on the gravity of two hurdles the U.S. Department of Transportation has allowed Texas Central to clear.
In short, the railroad company has been given its final “Rule of Particular Applicability” and its “Record of Decision.” Cheers!
All most of us need to know is that it means Texas Central can continue planning to build an elevated rail system from Houston with a final stop in Dallas.
Meanwhile, other developments have been released in the past week that have unleashed the Texas Central opponents to their favorite fussing place – Facebook.
Texas State Rep. Cecil Bell Jr., who represents areas northwest of Harris County, namely the Tomball-Magnolia area, sent out a press release informing media that Texas Central is using the property it has purchased (or condemned) as collateral to get a massive loan from the Japanese government.
“Public documents show Texas Central has deeded property from Texas landowners to the Japanese government through an offshore entity set up in the Cayman Islands,” Bell said in his press release.
“Texas Central did not disclose the existence of this offshore beneficiary to any of the landowners it convinced to sign an option contract,” he continued. “Nor did it disclose its plans to use the property purchased through the option contracts to secure a loan from the Japanese government.”
The Leader reached out to get a response from Texas Central, and it’s pretty much what you’d expect.
“Despite unfounded rumors to the contrary, Texas Central Railroad, a Texas-based company, owns the property purchased for the state-of-the-art high-speed train project and continues to honor all of the commitments made to the landowners who have participated in the Land Option Purchase Program,” said Texas Central President & CEO Carlos Aguilar. “Texas Central provided a security interest on its acquired property to its lender, which is customary practice in real property transactions.”
In other words, Aguilar didn’t dispute what State Rep. Bell said, but Texas Central was also very clear that they’ve done everything by the book.
What’s important to me, however, has nothing to do with using acquired land as collateral for more debt. Regardless of your financial acumen, it’s quite clear Texas Central has used investor money to buy options on land, and if the railroad goes belly up, there could be a whole lot of agricultural land owned by the group carrying the loan – in this case, the Japanese government.
I don’t care so much about that, and I’m not certain you should either. We have land owned by foreign entities all over this country.
Here’s what I want to know: Why isn’t anyone talking about how asinine this project seems in light of the past six months of complete upheaval in the world of travel.
Who cares about the money and who loaned what. Who cares if Texas Central cleared another bureaucratic hurdle.
Shouldn’t we care that the world of business travel has been upended? Shouldn’t we care that United and American Airlines and Delta have furloughed tens of thousands of employees with no return date in sight? Shouldn’t we care that the airports are empty and hotel rooms are cheaper than a family dinner?
Has anyone thought about how the drastic shift in travel will impact this noble, though flawed, idea of connecting Houston to Dallas with a $20 billion (and counting) investment? And who are the poor souls dumping money into this project?
Texas Central has said they’ll get you to Dallas in 90 minutes for the price of an average airline ticket – let’s assume that’s in the $200 range for each round trip. Meanwhile, you’re going to save about 10 minutes of actual travel time, once you park, go through security, and then take a cab to your actual, final destination.
This bullet train is designed to help people working between Houston and Dallas. Sure, business travel may come back one day, but there’s another virus around the corner, and there’s a whole new world called Zoom.
The news around Texas Central over the past week shouldn’t be a distraction from what I believe are fatal flaws in the concept. We ignore those flaws at our own peril, because we may deed over some precious land and carry the cost of bankruptcy if this idea fails.
The owners and operators of Texas Central are too far in to turn around now. If they’re going to keep buying our land, they owe us an explanation of how this project will ever work.