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Charlie Calhoun steered his green four-wheeler past the ponds where his 5-year-old boys love to fish, wove around dozens of cattle that lounged beneath pin oaks dotting the 630-acre ranch, and headed back to one of their barns.
His wife’s parents own the ranch in lush, rural Grimes County, nestled between Texas A&M University and Sam Houston National Forest—and about two hours northwest of downtown Houston. Charlie and Randa put a mobile home near her parents’ house on the ranch and have spent almost a decade saving money to build a house of their own.
They have a spot picked out near the pen barn, where their cattle are picked up by meat-packing companies that eventually turn the cows into beef that’s sold across the country.
But those plans are on hold. By the time they’d saved enough, they learned their land was in the path of a proposed high-speed rail line that aims to run America’s first bullet trains1 .
“City folks look at it differently,” Charlie Calhoun said from inside the pen barn. “They just look at it as a piece of land that needs to be plowed through.”
Private developer Texas Central plans to build a train that will shuttle people between Dallas and Houston in 90 minutes along a 240-mile route roughly parallel to a highway corridor that normally takes four hours to drive. This new link between two of the largest metropolitan areas in the nation—home to roughly half of the state’s 28 million residents—will help create “a super economy” says Holly Reed, Texas Central’s managing director of external affairs.
Texas Central sees the line as a mammoth example of a private entity addressing an infrastructure demand that government agencies are increasingly unable to tackle—and a chance to hook Americans on an alternative to highways that’s long connected major cities in Asia and Europe.
“There’s no doubt once people ride this train, they will want trains like this to go other places,” Reed says.
The company’s ambitious vision has arrived just as American cities are starting to grasp the detrimental side effects and financial unsustainability of car-centric infrastructure that’s dominated urban planning since the end of World War II.
But before Texas Central, which is largely financially backed by Japanese entities2 , can create an interstate high-speed network in the United States, it’s got to prove high-speed rail is viable in Texas. Even as the company and pushes forward with development—and brings on construction and operationspartners—it faces daunting hurdles.
The company is embroiled in legal and bureaucratic debates about whether a private company can use eminent domain, a process that allows entities to condemn land they need for a project and forcibly buy it from owners who aren’t willing to sell.
At the state Capitol, the bullet train represents the collision of two things that Republicans—who control Texas government—hold dear: private property rights and an unrestrained free market. And for two legislative sessions in a row, the free market has largely come out on top. The project has emerged relatively unscathed after bills aimed at hamstringing or killing it failed to get much traction.
“Big business is a big deal in the state of Texas,” says Kyle Workman, who heads the grassroots opposition group Texans Against High-Speed Rail, an organization that has galvanized rural Texans to lobby local and state leaders to stop the project. Workman says they’ll keep trying when lawmakers reconvene in January.
The political debate is an outgrowth of a larger question confronting a state where most people now live in urban areas: How much should rural residents have to sacrifice to solve problems born in the cities they intentionally avoided or outright fled?
“When those boys are sipping martinis on the weekend, we’re working cows,” Charlie Calhoun said.
This article first appeared on www.curbed.com
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