The Dallas Morning News is selling the bullet train to Houston the same way it sold the Trinity toll road, with snake oil on Page 1, while failing to disclose its interests.
The Dallas Morning News is selling the bullet train to Houston the same way it sold the Trinity toll road, with snake oil on Page 1, while failing to disclose its interests.
Everett Collection/Shutterstock

Morning News Snake-Oiling the Bullet Train Same Way It Did the Toll Road

Oh, no. Not again. Forgive me, but I know this setup so well by now, it’s like my old pal, Count Dracula, dropping by again for another visit from the tomb. I open my Dallas Morning News yesterday and choke on my coffee when I see the front-page headline: “DALLAS GETS ON BOARD FOR HIGH-SPEED RAIL.”

When did Dallas get on board? So I read. When I get into the story, the only Dallas elected official quoted as being on board for a plan to build a bullet train between here and Houston is City Council member Lee Kleinman. So the headline should be, “KLEINMAN ON BOARD FOR HIGH-SPEED RAIL.”

Only that’s not a headline because Kleinman is always on board. It would be a headline if Kleinman were not on board.

This is what I mean by Dracula back from the grave. This is just vintage Dallas Morning News stuff, fake news on Page 1 to promote a real estate boondoggle from which the owners of the paper stand to benefit. It’s all rah-rah’d up as if there were little SMU cheerleaders running around the margins of the front page and guys in party hats tooting on kazoos.

Dallas isn’t on board with jack. The City Council never voted to do anything but look into the bullet train. That’s not on board. That’s show us the money. And that never happened.

The story quotes Michael Morris of the North Central Texas Council of Governments, best known for 20 years of shilling for the Trinity Toll road, which is now a washed-up, disastrously failed boondoggle. Morris says of the bullet train, “You could wake up in Dallas and go eat dinner in Houston.”

So what? Right now without a bullet train, you can wake up north of Dallas, spend the whole morning loading a hog trailer, drive to Houston, unload at the slaughterhouse, wash up and still make it in plenty of time for dinner. And that’s all without giving the power of eminent domain to a private company so it can seize untold acres of ranch land, operate in the red for a half century and then stick the taxpayers with a multibillion-dollar bill.

Fine, call me negative. Maybe it would go the other way and be a tremendous success and spur all kinds of real estate development and so on. I think that would be ducky. I’m just saying we have no idea which way the bullet train proposal might tilt — good, bad or ugly — because no one has done the kind of rigorous analysis that is needed to give us even the faintest idea whether it’s a good deal.

So in the absence of any measured responsible analysis and debate, why would the Morning News put a breathless rah-rah story on Page 1 saying the whole city is “on board” already? Could it have anything to do with the fact that the company that owns the newspaper also owns a large, abandoned publishing campus next to the area where the paper says the huge Texas Central rail terminus would go?

The story quotes Texas Central CEO Carlos Aguilar as saying, “This station will be a magnet for economic activity in an area ripe for development.”

Keyword: ripe.

For decades, whenever downtown has seen a sudden and organic burst of high-rise development activity, the direction of growth has been north and east, away from the southwest corner of downtown. That benighted corner is where the owners of the Morning News and oilman Ray Hunt, who is of the same general social and business posse, suffer the ignominy of holding large land parcels.

During the same decades, the Morning News has used its publishing power to try to push, bend, suck, draw and whomperjaw the direction of growth in downtown in the hope of redirecting it toward its own dirt. The newspaper started out this same way, for example, in touting the ill-fated Trinity toll road, a project that consumed 20 years of public focus and energy and burned up uncounted hundreds of millions in squandered public investment before a new City Council finally shot it in the head and declared it dead.

A bullet train to Houston could be the path to the future or yet another disastrous boondoggle dreamed up by Dallas' old guard. It would be nice to have some idea which before we are all herded on board.EXPAND
A bullet train to Houston could be the path to the future or yet another disastrous boondoggle dreamed up by Dallas' old guard. It would be nice to have some idea which before we are all herded on board.
Mitsuki-2368, via Wikipedia

The early Trinity toll road coverage was exactly like this: Everybody’s on board and rah-rah and toot-toot and be there or be square. It’s a pattern encoded deeply in the DNA of the paper’s owners. It always makes my heart bleed when I see it again because I know that many very competent professional journalists work at the paper and strive hard every day and night to build the paper’s credibility.

But, look, this stuff always just blows it. Forget credibility. So they hired some new guy to be the editor and he’s going to make them all digital. So what? What’s the difference between digital shills and analog shills?

Let me give you an example of how simple it would be to do this the clean way. First of all, you don’t shout in your front-page headline that the city’s on board when all you have is Kleinman on board. In the second place, when you get to the part about how great the bullet train station is going to be for nearby real estate, you do the tiniest little gesture of a disclaimer:

“Dear Reader, we should mention that the owners of this newspaper happen to be sitting on slightly more than 10 acres of dead ink-stained dirt where our newspaper used to be housed in a location neatly just between the proposed bullet train rail yard and downtown. That doesn’t necessarily mean we would be able to unload this white elephant all of a sudden if the bullet train gets done, but a large supply of Champagne has been stored in case the bullet train gets a green light from the city.”

I know that the bullet train idea sounds sexy from a distance. How can you not like something that’s a bullet and a train? It’s so Batman. But please consider only one caveat. Enormous amounts of land must be acquired in order to bring a high-speed railroad into the center of the city. The question is how the land will be acquired. Texas Central Railroad has a website dealing with this topic.

At the top of the page in red letters, it says, “RUMOR: 'A private company does not have the right to use eminent domain.'"

No, wait. I had to read that twice. I thought it was going to say the rumor was that it might use eminent domain and the rumor wasn’t true. But it says the rumor is that it can’t use eminent domain. Then it goes on to say what’s true:

“As a last resort, eminent domain powers for railroads like UP, BNSF and Texas Central are set forth in the Texas Statutes. Texas forefathers passed laws allowing private companies in certain industries that build infrastructure the ability to exercise eminent domain in limited cases.”

Then it gives a list of companies that have power of eminent domain. Oh, wow. These guys are coming with their dukes up and their boots kicking dust. It’s like, “Oh, yeah, we’re going to have power of eminent domain. We’re going to use it, and you’re going to get used to it.”

OK, again not to be negative, but I wonder if people in this deal have given even the slightest bit of attention to the fact that eminent domain has a horrible history in the very part of town where they plan to start scarfing up acreage. Hey, I’m right, right? It’s not like they’re going to build their rail yard in the middle of the Park Cities or, in fact, anywhere white.

Again, none of this is to say that the bullet train could not be a good thing. Maybe it’s the great promise of the future. But when the great promise of the future is coming from the lips of the same slippery dude who took your paycheck in a shell-game just last week, it’s best to keep a keep a firm grip on that wallet.

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