Texas lawmakers call on feds to stop work on Dallas-to-Houston bullet train after coronavirus layoffs

AUSTIN — A group of state lawmakers is calling on U.S. Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao to put an end to any further action on the bullet train between Dallas and Houston following the layoffs of 28 workers by the company in charge of the project last month.

“It has become clear Texas Central Railroad simply does not have the financial resources required or expertise employed to continue with this project,” a letter signed by 28 lawmakers said. “To proceed otherwise would be an inexcusable waste of taxpayer dollars and jeopardizes the integrity of the rules making process at the Federal Railroad Administration.”

The letter was posted online Tuesday by State Rep. John Wray, R-Waxahachie.

Last month, Texas Central, the company in charge of the bullet train project, laid off workers and said in a news release that the project is facing delays because of the toll inflicted by the coronavirus pandemic in Italy, Spain and Japan, nations where the company has partners.

But Texas Central CEO Carlos Aguilar said after the layoffs that a core team of experts and planners “remain[ed] actively engaged and prepared to move this project forward” when its permits were finalized and the financial markets stabilized. He said the project was “shovel-ready” but was contingent on financial entities in the United States, Europe and Japan that were dealing with urgent priorities created by the coronavirus.

“It’s disappointing that some lawmakers are focused on killing more than 17,000 jobs in this time of need considering the economic hit we’ve taken due to COVID-19 and declining oil prices,” Aguilar said in a statement on Tuesday. “Texas Central is the shovel-ready project that our state needs now more than ever. In addition to providing a new, safe and efficient transportation option, this project has the ability to help jump start the Texas economy.”

Aguilar said the project would also infuse billions into U.S. industries and support small and rural businesses, as well as those owned by women, minorities and veterans.

“Jobs and investment will be key to regaining our economy in a post COVID-19 Texas, and this project has the ability to launch quickly and make a significant difference,” Aguilar said.

The lawmakers, which include seven state senators and 21 state representatives mostly from rural areas that are opposed to the project, said Aguilar’s comments after the layoffs last month were an acknowledgment of the company’s lack of financial ability.

“Given the project is still in the planning phase and TCRR does not anticipate earning revenue until construction is completed, the statements above reveal TCRR clearly does not and will not have the funding to conduct the planning or construction phases of this project in the foreseeable future,” the letter reads, noting that the project is expected to cost $20 billion.

The lawmakers also argue that Texas Central’s layoffs left them without the expertise to respond to questions posed by citizens during a comment period about the rules and safety standards for the project. Because of that, they asked Chao to “immediately suspend” the rulemaking process and petition for the project currently being considered by divisions of the federal government.

“It is clearly time to bring all activity being conducted by the federal government regarding this project to a close,” the letter reads. “It is simply a waste of taxpayer dollars and resources to continue further in dealings with TCRR that could otherwise be utilized combatting the COVID-19 pandemic.”

The letter is signed by several North Texas lawmakers, including State Sen. Brian Birdwell of Granbury, and State Reps. Wray, Mike Lang, Keith Bell and Drew Springer. All of the letter’s signers were Republicans.

The bullet train is expected to carry passengers between Dallas and Houston in 90 minutes, but it has received opposition from many of the rural areas in between where citizens would have to make room and potentially give up their land for the project’s construction.

Before the pandemic, a groundbreaking was seen as possible this year, with completion expected by 2026.

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