• Photo by Roxanne Thompson/The Groesbeck Journal
    Charles Little, left, whose family has owned land near Personville since the mid-1800s, speaks at the public hearing on the proposed high-speed rail held by the Federal Railroad Administration on Jan. 31 at Mexia High School. The proposed railroad tracks would cut through Little’s land, cutting it in two and going very near the home his son and daughter-in-law built. Also shown are a court reporter and FRA officials Kevin Wright, seated on stage at left and Marc Dixon.

Landowners give emotional testimony against high-speed rail plans - 2876

By Roxanne Thompson, Staff Writer

Emotions ran high Wednesday evening at Mexia High School Auditorium during a public hearing on the proposed high-speed railway by Texas Central Railway.

The specially enclosed tracks would cut through the southeastern edge of Limestone County as they follow an angular route between Dallas and Houston. Consequently, most of those speaking were landowners who face losing some or even all of their land to Texas Central, either by selling it willingly or being forced to do so through eminent domain. At this point, the company has not yet been determined to have that power.

The Federal Railroad Administration held the hearing to allow the public to react to the FRA’s Draft Environmental Impact Statement, which it released on Dec. 15, 2017. An Environmental Impact Statement is required to determine possible negative results of their project. The Draft EIS is simply the proposed version, to which the public must be allowed to respond through hearings.   

About 100 people attended Wednesday’s hearing, plus an additional 30 or so employees of either the FRA or Texas Central Railway.

The first hour consisted of attendees viewing large information boards with excerpts from the DEIS set up around the high school’s foyer, with FRA employees there to answer questions. Texas Central had similar information boards and employees in the adjoining cafeteria. 

The remaining time was dedicated to recording comments of those attending, No one spoke in favor of the railway, only against it, bringing up a wide variety of concerns and objections to the project.

Several complained that surveyors representing Texas Central were going onto the land without permission, even after being ordered to leave; also that the surveyors claimed the company had eminent domain, a matter that is in dispute.

“They have been on my property four times and run off when they were not supposed to be there,” said Ruth Heiti, a retired veteran. “They told me on my doorstep that I had to sign their paper because they have eminent domain.”

Another accusation made was that the cost of the project would ultimately be borne by taxpayers.

County Judge Daniel Burkeen spoke on this subject at the hearing, saying that although TCR says it does not want to use public funds its actions say otherwise.

He said that at the Legislature, “TCR was fighting any effort to keep them from getting public subsidies, that they keep claiming they don’t want and won’t ask for. But they fought tooth and nail to keep that right to get public subsidies. So If you want guarantees, I can guarantee you the taxpayers are going to end up paying for this if it goes forward. If you talk to them, all the numbers are so suspect, the ridership estimates, everything. Nobody can seriously look at this and think it’s going to work without massive public subsidies, and it’s just not worth it.”

Groesbeck attorney and Riesel Municipal Judge Michelle Latray also spoke at the hearing, saying she doubted the necessity for the train.

“Assuming there is a benefit, it is not for the majority of residents of the counties it passes through,” Latray said. “Every impact listed in the Frequently Asked Questions is a negative impact, and brings up questions of who is going to bear the cost for all these things: Ultimately we are.”

Latray gave examples of the increased impact on the electrical grid, the cost of moving electrical lines, and gas oil wells and pads; the effect on endangered species, wildlife and livestock; the increased noise; blocking emergency services, roads, water lines and the water system itself.

Another dignitary speaking against the project was Limestone County Commissioner Pct. 4 Bobby Forrest, in whose precinct the railway would lie.

“The people and citizens of Pct. 4 do not need that train to go through and hurt them,” he said. “They have the biggest hearts, the family traditions, and those things do not need to be destroyed so somebody can ride from Houston to Dallas.”

 

Issues both practical and emotional

 Some concerns were of a practical nature. For example, Brenda Duncan expressed concern that the trains’ noise and vibrations would disturb her cattle. Also, the division of her property would produce logistical problems.

“How are we going to get back and forth from one section to another of our property?” she asked. She also wondered whether the project would affect the water table and noted that her property values would fall again.

On another practical concern, Anita Dobbs pointed out that feral hogs were virtually uncontrollable and could damage the fence protecting the tracks.

The issue that produced the deepest anger and sometimes tears, however, was the landowners’ expression of their love of their families’ farm or ranch.

“At one time we had four generations living on our place,” said David Mason. “The land is our livelihood; it’s what we live for. It’s the prettiest place we’ve ever seen anywhere around. There is no money that could purchase it. There ’s just not that much money in the world.”

Logan Wilson’s 55-acre piece of land has been in his family for five generations and would be cut diagonally by the proposed railway. He said TCR had provided him and his wife an option agreement, which they refused.

“They offered to buy it but in the same breath said they could take it by eminent domain,” he said. “The bottom line is that land is not for sale at any price and as long as I have breath.”

Wilson joined many others at the hearing in speaking about the negative effects the train would have on wildlife.

“Two parallel fences 12 feet high will drop an Iron Curtain across central of Texas and impede the movement of wildlife,” Wilson said. “A 200-mph train passing every 30 minutes cannot help but adversely and significantly affect wildlife as well as our peace and quiet.”

About 24 people spoke against the project, often going over the three-minute limit. Some attendees did not speak at all, saying the issue was too emotional for them. Some speakers whose time had expired signed up to speak again at the end of the line.

 

Emotional level grows

After the first few speakers, those in the audience began clapping in response to the comments of the speakers, their enthusiasm growing as the evening wore on. Several were so angry that they warned of the possibility of violence, the seriousness of their intentions unclear.

“Y’all are in the wrong damn state if you’re trying to steal people’s land!” said Les Neal, of Shiloh, who directed his comments to the two FRA representatives seated on stage.

Lauren Mason and several others made the point that IH-45 is not congested up and down its corridor, only as it enters Dallas and Houston. Also, the company is relying on unlikely behavior from potential customers.

“No car- or truck-owning Texan is going to drive their vehicle into the congestion in Houston or Dallas, pay to park, pay $199 for a one-way ticket to the opposite city, pay to rent a car when they get there and repeat that process in reverse just so they can say they rode a 205-mph train that saved them two hours on the freeway,” she said. “Surely as a people, a community and state, we have more sense than this.”

Resident Brad Butler asked in the case of a brownout whether the train or homes would get priority. Hunters would have a liability risk up to a mile away from the train, he said, and he wondered how that could be monitored. Also, the berms would affect the flow of streams, he said, possibly cutting of the water source of a farmer depending on runoff for his stock tank. If culverts are needed, who would pay to install them? Who would keep the culverts clear and take care of erosion? he asked.

To read more of this story, pick up a copy of Thursday's edition of The Groesbeck Journal! You can also subscribe online or call 254-729-5103.

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