High-speed rail may benefit Dallas and Houston, but at Ellis County’s expense? Landowners fearful
Carma Sullivan’s farmland has been in her husband’s family for nearly six generations. Their business is a noble one, growing crops for meager profits, but their way of life is under threat because of the Dallas to Houston high-speed rail project.
The Sullivan family farm sits on about 1,000 acres at the edge of Ellis County, touching Navarro County. Sullivan and her family all live on the land, farming their own portion, but are worried that their farming days could end once the proposed high-speed rail cuts their farmland in half.
“We’re not just perfectly willing to give up our land we’ve had for generations,” Sullivan said. “The proposed track runs right through my brother-in-law’s house. This land has been in our family since right after the civil war, and I’m worried. I’m 67 years old, and I love what I do. I love my life and to see that whole legacy wiped out is more than I can bear.”
Texas Central Railway hopes to construct a high-speed rail line that would connect Dallas and Houston. The railroad boasts that they will use Japanese N700 Series Shinkansen electric trains to complete the 240-mile journey in around 90 minutes — a dramatic difference from a three or four-hour drive.
The company touts that the 200-mph train will consist of eight train cars with a 400 person seating capacity. The cars will run each way every 30 minutes during peak periods, and every hour for non-peak periods.
Along the route, Texas Central has proposed one stop outside of Texas A&M University but doesn’t plan to have any other stations outside of the Dallas/Houston metros.
Projects like the high-speed rail take years of planning because not only does Texas Central have to sort out the funding and means to construct the train and tracks, but first a study on the best route for the train to take — and the environmental impact of that course, — need to be completed. The Federal Railroad Administration released its Draft Environmental Impact Study in December and submitted the findings to the Federal Register.
“Texans are a step closer to the travel choice, safety and the jobs the bullet train will bring,” said Houston business executive Drayton McLane Jr., chairman of the board of directors for Texas Central, in a statement. “This is a significant moment in the train’s progress — not only for Texas’ bullet train but also for a state leading the way on infrastructure innovations.”
Currently, the project is now in the public hearing process — a 60-day public comment period that ends Feb. 22. The Federal Register instituted this period so that the public can provide their thoughts on the more than 5,000-page DEIS, and provide that information to the FRA and Texas Central.
After the public hearing process, the FRA will conduct more research on the train’s environmental impact, if necessary, and produce a final Environmental Impact Study. At that point, the FRA will issue a Record of Decision concerning the path the train will travel. The Record of Decision is the final stamp of approval in the process and will decide if Texas Central can proceed with design, land acquisition, and construction.
Many residents of the 11 counties the train passes through are not thrilled about the idea of having their land taken for a train that they can’t board in their cities. Ellis County residents are no exception.
Becky Scasta and Sullivan have voiced their opinions about the project since 2014. The duo is part of a non-profit organization called Texans Against High-Speed Rail — a group that advocates for the project to be stopped.
“Everyone is Ellis county would have to drive to Dallas to even use it and then pay $200 to go each way,” Scasta said. “People don’t realize that you cannot get on this train in Ellis County.”
“It’s a rich man’s project,” Sullivan added. “We’re Dallas’ doormat.”
Scasta, like Sullivan, is one of many landowners in Ellis County who will have some of her farmland taken if the project progresses. Scasta said Texas Central has already come to her home and attempted to purchase and survey her land, but wouldn’t give her an exact figure on how much they were offering.
According to the DEIS, zero businesses in Ellis County will be displaced by the high-speed rail project. But Sullivan questions how her family will survive when they’re unable to farm areas of their land due to construction, and afterward due to a train cutting right through the middle of the property.
Though under and overpasses will be built in some areas, and will have to use the Texas Department of Transportation’s standard of 14-feet high, Sullivan worries that some of her farm equipment is more than 14-foot tall – meaning she and her family will not have a way to transport machinery across the farm.
Farmers and land-holders aren’t the only ones who may be impacted if the project receives the green light to continue.
According to plans produced by Texas Central, the proposed route runs along land reserved for high-voltage electric utility lines. This “Utility Corridor” runs through and near county-maintained roads that may have to be re-routed.
Texas Central has stated that they will pay for the re-routing of these roadways and will gift them to their respective entity after, if that’s the case, taxpayers will have to pay to maintain these new roads in the future.
Ellis County Judge Carol Bush said she’s against the project.
“It’s the county’s position that we are against the high-speed rail because of the property owner’s land being impacted and the eminent domain implications,” Bush said. “I’m going to advocate for the people in our community, and the project looks like it isn’t going to have a positive impact on our community.”
Another issue that concerns residents of Ellis County is the noise for those who will live and work near the tracks.
According to the DEIS, at 50 feet away, the high-speed train is expected to generate between 100 – 110 decibels. The study equates this sound to be somewhere in-between the sound of a jackhammer or rock drill if you’re standing outside and similar to the noise of shop tools for those indoors. The noise has other implications too, like impacting the value of properties that are in proximity to the train.
The DEIS projects varying changes in property values in Ellis County depending on what segment of track throughout the county the property falls near. The estimates range from a decrease in value from $31,630 to increases as high as $43,330.
Lawmakers have also raised questions about the legitimacy of Texas Central’s claims to eminent domain.
“They put the word railroad in their name, but don’t have any assets to prove they’re a railroad,” said Rep. John Wray of Texas’ House District 10. “You can’t just file some paperwork and claim to be a railroad.”
Wray added that he plans to continue to author legislation that will stop Texas Central in its tracks.
“We recognize that Texas land is an important and emotional issue and it’s one we take very seriously,” the Texas Central website states. “Anytime there is an impact to someone’s property it’s deeply personal. That is why the approach used on this project is to genuinely understand issues and concerns and work collaboratively with landowners to come to a commercial agreement. However, as a last resort, eminent domain powers for railroads like UP, BNSF and Texas Central are set forth in the Texas Statutes.”
Sullivan isn’t sure what will happen to her family’s farm, and all she can do is wait.
She and others who are part of her opposition movement have banned together and refuse to let surveyors on their property or sell their land to Texas Central before the railroad’s final construction approval. She and Scasta said they will continue to voice their concerns, and won’t give in to intimidation.
“I have my letter where they (Texas Central) threatened to sue me,” Scasta said. “They’re trying to intimidate me.”
Representatives from Texas Central will be in Ellis County as part of the public hearing period. The company is holding a town hall-style meeting from 5 — 9 p.m. Jan. 30 at Ennis High School, located at 2301 Ensign Rd.