In Ellis County, Officials Hatch a Plot to Kill the Dallas-to-Houston Bullet Train

Marty Hiles had big plans for Ellis County. “A bunch of us — mostly retired, all former CEOs, executives, we’ve been around the world,
done things, every one of us are veterans — we got together and we were looking and said ‘You know what? Ellis County needs to come out of the shadows of Dallas.'” he recalls. They were tired of being “just be a bedroom community of Dallas. [Ellis County] needs to be a place to work on top of a place to live.”

Their frustration was understandable. Collin County, which occupies the same position to Dallas’ north as Ellis County does to the south, had exploded over the past several decades and become a powerful force in the region’s economy. Ellis County, meanwhile, was a sleepy place with an economy still dominated by agriculture.

Hiles is a voluble ex-Marine from North Carolina who first moved to Texas — Arlington — following the Vietnam War. His career as an advocate and lobbyist on veterans’ issues soon took him elsewhere, first to Washington, D.C. (he calls meeting Ronald Reagan “the highlight of my life”) then out West, but he’d been charmed during his initial stint in the Lone Star State and wanted to return. About five years ago, he and his wife settled in Waxahachie. Before long, he’d absorbed the hometown boosterism of his adopted county and began brainstorming with like-minded residents (former aerospace executive and long-shot U.S. Senate candidate Ken Cope and retired aviation consultant Morris Dixon chief among them) on ways to improve the county. They settled on a vision of Ellis County as a high-tech hub. They had begun coordinating with elected officials and were busy penciling out strategy for luring businesses to the area when they learned that a private outfit called Texas Central Railway planned to run a bullet train through the eastern part of Ellis County en route to Houston.

A high-speed rail stop sounded like just the type of shot in the arm Ellis County needed. Development would flock to the station and, with a quick link to both Dallas and Houston, immediately make the county a much more attractive place for a high-powered company to do business. “We went, ‘Hey, this is great! High-speed rail!’” Hiles recalls thinking as he walked into a public meeting last year in Waxahachie with officials from Texas Central, TxDOT, and the Federal Railroad Administration. Then, they saw the plans and realized that there would be no local stop; for the train, Ellis County would be flyover country. “We walked away stunned,” Hiles says. “Just completely stunned. It was obvious there was nothing, no benefit at all.”

From that point forward Hiles and his group, which they dubbed Texas Concerned Citizens, shifted their energies from promoting economic development to killing high-speed rail — objectives that in their mind are one and the same. Texas Central, which has settled on a single preferred “utility corridor” route that shadows high-voltage power lines, maintains publicly that the line’s design will include as many underpasses as needed to accommodate the free flow of goods, wildlife and farm equipment, minimizing any negative impact, but Hiles and many others in Ellis County are skeptical. To turn a profit, the company will need to minimize capital costs; since elevating the tracks to allow traffic to pass underneath is more expensive than the default design of an impassable 14-foot berm closed in by a security fence, the residents fear that Texas Central will build as few elevated sections tracks as it can get away with. The most immediate impact will be on farmers, who, Hiles says, contribute $160 million to the Ellis County economy.

Though Texas Central’s footprint will be relatively slight — its 100 foot right-of-way will require the acquisition of a modest 3,000 acres along the 240-mile route — the rail will split many farms in two. Scott Born, who grows a mix of wheat, corn, cotton, and sunflowers along the proposed route, fears that he’ll be forced to haul his farm equipment as much as a mile to the nearest underpass to reach the orphaned piece of his property at a cost that, between wasted fuel, engine stress and tire wear, he ballparks at $100 per
hour. When he raised his concern, he says a Texas Central official suggested that he just buy a second set of equipment for the opposite side of the tracks, a proposition that’s so prohibitively expensive as to be laughable. Tim Keith, Texas Central’s newly appointed CEO, says the company is aware of the skepticism but is committed to working with property owners, both to reach a fair deal of the land they need to acquire and to ensure adequate access points for farmers and everyone else. “As a transportation company we’re all about moving people and goods and equipment,” Keith says; Texas Central has no desire to restrict the existing flow, nor does it have the desire or authority to close down county roads, as critics have suggested that it plans to do.

But even if no roads are closed and every tractor and combine can move effortlessly under the rail, people in Ellis County view the rail as something close to an existential threat. It’s not just that the rail won’t bring hoped-for economic development; it’s that it will be a literal and figurative barrier to future growth, relegating Ellis County to a semi-rural purgatory, a place that city-dwellers zoom through without a pause or a second thought. “It’s like you lose an arm,” says Ronnie Caldwell, who owns some of the land that Burns farms. “Somebody pays you for your arm, for your loss and all that. Well, you have all these opportunities come later on, but you need two hands to do
the job. What are you gonna do?”

Dozens of other Ellis County residents spoke of their worries to Texas Central at public meetings, but they always came away with the sense that the company either wasn’t listening or was only telling them what they wanted to hear. They enlisted the help of local politicians such as state Representative John Wray, who filed bills in the 2015 legislative session aimed at killing the bullet train, and the Ellis County Commissioners Court, which voted unanimously to pass a resolution opposing the project, but their efforts seemed futile.

Hiles was on the brink of despair when, talking to Texas Central opponents near Houston, he learned of an obscure provision of state law enabling municipal and county governments to band together in “sub-regional planning commissions” that have the legal standing of state agencies. Essentially, Hiles learned, the law gave commissions the power to force Texas Central and TxDOT to sit down at the negotiating table to talk as equals. Several of the commissions had been formed to stop the Trans-Texas Corridor, a massive conglomeration of toll roads, rails and utility lines proposed just over a decade ago by then-Governor Rick Perry, and
claimed at least partial credit for the project’s demise.

Hiles pitched the idea to the city councils of Palmer (population 2,000), Ferris (2,436), and Ennis (18,513), all of which are in or near the rail’s path. Each readily passed a resolution agreeing to join the Community Development Sub-Regional Planning Commission. “We’re just trying to be recognized,” says Palmer Mayor Kenneth Bateman, the owner of Bug Out Pest Control. “Doing what we’ve done is supposed to give us a voice as to what’s going around in our town.” Ennis Mayor Russell Thomas says the goal “is to force full disclosure. When you do that [form a sub-regional planning commission], then they are bound to actually have to show you what the plans
and details actually are.”

The commission has had one meeting so far. “We’re just beginning to assert our authority,” Hiles says. “The big fear a lot of the people have is … they’re either going to ignore us — if they do we’re going to go to the DA, say look we’re a state agency and they’re not working with us. We’ll force it if we have to. Or they might turn around and really start harassing us and sic the dogs on us, and that’s why I’m trying to find a good attorney who will cover us pro bono. Because if they come after us, I’m not ready to quit. We’ve all put our life and fortunes, like the Founding Fathers, really, on the line here because we’re trying to protect what we have.”

But there’s considerable debate about whether sub-regional planning commissions are even legal. Experts on Texas municipal law tend to think they’re not. The statute that they’re organized under, Chapter 391 of Texas’ Local Government Code, was passed several decades ago to create regional planning commissions, commonly referred to as councils of government or COGs, and enable them to
coordinate regional planning and distribute state and federal funds. No one disputes that the law allows cities, counties, school districts and other arms of local government to band together into powerful multi-jurisdictional commissions or that the law explicitly provides those commissions with a say in transportation decisions. The issue is with how they are created.

Greg Hudson, an Austin-based lawyer whose firm specializes in local government law, says he’s ”not sure that they’ve [the sub-regional commissions] fully digested Texas law.” The sub-regional planning commissions in existence seem to have skipped over a key provision of Chapter 391 that requires them to be “consistent with the geographic boundaries for state planning regions or subregions that are delineated by the governor and that are subject to review and change at the end of each state biennium.” As it stands, the governor has delineated the boundaries of two dozen regional commissions, none of which are comprised entirely of Palmer, Ferris, and Ennis or any other "subregion."

“It seems to be pretty cut and dried,” Hudson says. Jim Allison, an attorney for the County Judges & Commissioners Association of Texas, has repeatedly advised the groups' members that sub-regional planning commissions aren’t authorized by the law. “Since the governor has not designated boundaries for any sub-regional commissions there is no statutory authority for the creation of a sub-regional planning commission,” he wrote in a typical letter to commissioners in Gillespie County. And then there’s the fundamental question of why the Legislature would have given every backwoods hamlet and dust-blown county that can find a willing partner the authority to declare themselves an appendage of state government, though, to be fair, there are fundamental questions to be asked about why the Legislature does a lot of stuff.

The doubtful legal status of sub-regional planning commissions hasn’t stopped them from proliferating. Penny Redington, executive director of the Texas Association of Regional Councils, has watched them spring up time and again as rural and small-town Texas has struggled to hold its own against big-ticket projects: first the Trans-Texas Corridor, then high-voltage power lines in West Central Texas, then a natural gas pipeline in West Texas, now the Dallas-to-Houston bullet train. Redington, whose group represents the state’s 24 clearly established COGs, traces the efforts largely to a curious outfit called American Stewards of Liberty, which has dedicated itself to the protection of private property through the creation of sub-regional planning commissions. The commissions’ legitimacy has never really been tested because, Redington says, agencies like TxDOT don’t have to be forced to the table; they meet with local governments and concerned stakeholders as part of the normal planning process. “It’s like if the local garden club our grandmothers started in the 1920s wanted to meet with someone from TxDOT and they called and asked, TxDOT would come to meet with them,” she says.

Thomas, the Ennis mayor, says the city attorney thinks the new group is legit. But even if it’s not, there’s value in forging partnerships with neighboring towns and demanding to be heard. “If it makes 'em take notice then I guess it’s worth the effort,” he says.

Hiles is confident that the new coalition will have an impact. If their discussions with TxDOT don’t stop it outright, than they can at least slow it down. He’s also working on persuading the Ferris, Palmer, and Ennis school districts to join, which would put the entirety of eastern Ellis County, rather than just the area inside the three cities’ boundaries, within the Community Development Sub-Regional Planning Commission. One way or another, Hiles says, they'll make sure Texas Central hears their message: “Rural lives matter.”

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Eric Nicholson
Contact: Eric Nicholson