May 6, 2023 - TRA Austin -
Over the objections of Texas Central Railway CEO Michael Bui, House Bill 2357 was passed out of the Texas House Transportation Committee this week and sent to Calendars, the next step before being presented for a full House vote.
The bill, authored by House District 15 Representative Steve Toth (R) and District 8 Representative Cody Harris (R), would require that the rail operator disclose funding and financing methods for their high-speed rail project on an annual basis. Any high-speed rail company would have to disclose to the Texas Department of Transportation any information they would present to the Surface Transportation Board.
Bui, in his first appearance for the railroad before legislators, spoke out against the proposed bill, arguing that disclosing information like financial plans, names of investor, ridership studies and other proprietary information could jeopardize companies and investors interested in developing the current project, as well as other critical infrastructure programs.
"Any private company would hesitate to put this information out to be used for others' benefit", according to Bui. "The federal agency overseeing the project has stated its intent to review the financial feasibility as part of its thorough review to approve the project as it does with others."
Opponents of the 240-mile high speed line that would connect Dallas and Houston testified against the project and demanded more transparency and accoutability from Texas Central. A band of rural landowners along the route have been fighting the project for a decade and filed numerous lawsuits, which culminated in last year's decision by the Texas Supreme Court which stated that Texas Central had the right of eminate domain to obtain land needed for the railroad. Elected state officials filed numerous bills in previous sessions in attempts to kill the high-speed rail project.
Texas House Transportation Chairman Terry Canales was critical of the railroad not being forthcoming to landowners and keeping them informed on progress. "Nobody knows what's going on. They've been trying to contact you, you haven't responded"," according to Canales. "You, at least, owe them some answers, at least to the county judge or the community. Tell them what's going on because they're telling this committee under oath that they are coming here and they have been trying to get a hold of you."
Grimes County Judge Joe Fauth, in testimony before House Transportation, said "having access to updated information would benefit out ability in the county to plan for future growth, what traffic patterns might be, routes for EMS, school buses, sheriff and our volunteer fire departments."
Landowners last year filed suit in Dallas District Court to force the railroad to open its books. A hearing was scheduled in April but was postponed by the attorney representing the plantiffs.
Bui's testimony before the transportation committee was the first time anyone from Texas Central has made a public statement or appearance since the resignation of CEO Carlos Aguilar and the board early in 2022.
If the bill is passed by the House, it must wind it's way to a hearing in the Texas Senate, with few days remaining to be heard in the current session