State Representative John Wray visited with residents Friday evening to provide an update of ongoing legislation in Austin and to answer questions.
The main two topics of discussion at the town meeting were proposed high speed rail connecting Dallas to Houston and the use of biosolids in agriculture.
The proposed high-speed rail line would be constructed and operated by the Texas Central Rail. According to its website, about 50,000 Texans travel back and forth between Houston and Dallas more than once per week. The approximately 240-mile high-speed rail line will offer a total travel time of less than 90 minutes.
The Texas Central Railway is working with the Texas Department of Transportation and the Federal Railroad on the environmental review of its privately proposed project. The construction and operation of the high-speed rail will be regulated by both TxDOT and the Federal Railroad Administration, but is not a TxDOT project.
“A lot people are talking about this high-speed rail. I have taken opposition against this high-speed rail. I want to tell you a couple of reasons why and a couple of things that I am doing about it. First off, depending on the route that high-speed rail takes it would affect approximately eight to 12 counties that are between Dallas and Harris counties. In my opinion it would affect them negatively,” Wray said. “This rail line would pass through. It would not have any stops. There maybe an intermediate stop in Grimes and Brazos Counties, but it would not have a stop here in Ellis County. It is problematic because a train that goes 200 mph is not going to have any grade crossings.”
Wray said that the construction of this high-speed rail line would be constructed on a raised beam and would be fenced. This in turn would divide the county in half and limit development opportunities for a community that is growing. He added that there is another proposal for a second high-speed rail line that would connect to San Antonio, which would divide the county into three sections.
To bring attention to this issue facing Ellis County, Wray has filed two bills.
“I had one bill at a committee last week. I have another to be heard at a committee next week. The one I had heard last week is a bill that says private activity bonds cannot be issued to fund or finance high speed rail. What I am trying to do prevent large cities in these urban from grouping together to issue these private activity bonds in essentially by passing all us little guys in the middle,” Wray said. “The folks that are trying to promote this high speed rail say they don’t want any public funds. I got them to come to the capital last week and say on videotape that they don’t want public funds, but they don’t want the door shut on getting these private activity bonds. So I demonstrated some duplicity and I think that this is something that we can use going forward.”
According the Municipal Securities Rulemaking Board private activity bonds issued to finance various types of facilities owned or used by private entities including airports, docks and certain other transportation-related facilities.
Wray said the second bill is going to be reviewed in Austin on Monday. This bill will provide more funds to a property owner if their land is condemned and used to construct the high-speed rail line.
“The money that a property owner receives in connection to condemnation is decided by this group of property owner in the county called special commissioners that are appointed for each case. So what my bill says is that these special commissioners must take into account the impact of high-speed rail on the remainder,” Wray said. “So if you have a 100-acre tract and they want to take five acres of it and you have two pieces on either side, these special commissioners have to take into account the financial impact on the remainder and must add 50 percent to the award to compensate you for the damage done to the remaining tract. I think that is an important issue for homeowners and property owners who would be impacted by this project.”
Members of the crowd asked Wray if the state has the authority to revoke the project’s imminent domain authority.
“On the first part, there has been a bill that has passed a Senate committee, it hasn’t passed the full Senate, that would that away imminent domain authority for Texas Central Railway,” Wray said. “I have asked that question of TxDOT of whether TCR has imminent domain authority and they tell me that its ability to have imminent domain authority is dependent on the federal government. They have applied to the Surface Transportation Board for a certificate of convenience and necessity, which seems consistent for them seeking federal authority.”
Wray added that he has been asking the same question and has not gotten a straight answer as to whether Texas can block it. There is also a House bill that would not allow high-speed rail unless it is approved by local government bodies in each county. Wray said he is a joint author of that bill and believes it went to committee last week.
Wray also disused the sewage sludge/biosolid issue and the bills that he is moving forward on.
“We have heard a lot and have had a lot of issues with sewer sludge. I have filed two sewer sludge bills. I filed them in the alternative because I want to try and make some progress on this and advance one of these bills,” Wray said. “One would ban the use of sewer sludge in Ellis County. There are three types of sewage sludge that are (defined) in Texas Commission on Environmental Quality regulations. Type A, Type B and Type AB, which is in the middle. I have filed a bill, which would ban the use of this as a topical federalizer in all of Ellis County.”
Wray said the second bill is a local control bill. It gives the Ellis County Commissioners the ability to regulate where these different types of sewage sludge can be used.
Members of the audience informed Wray that, as small local producers, the impact of not being able to use this product is going to be significant on their operations. Other audience members stated they had been using this product for many, many years while their property was still classified as in the county before development came in. Another audience member asked Wray instead of having two bills, why not show his support to one and leave it to local control.
Wray suggested that when the bill comes up for review by the committee they come to Austin and share their insight with committee members. If that was not possible to send a letter to them stating their position, Wray said.