Biden signals support for controversial Texas bullet train

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President Joe Biden signaled tentative federal support for a long-struggling high-speed train between Dallas and Houston using Japanese technology during a meeting last week with Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida.

Opponents of the controversial proposal, meanwhile, have urged the Department of Justice to investigate the project’s owner, Texas Central Partners LLC, for violations of the Foreign Agents Registration Act (FARA), alleging it’s controlled by Japanese sovereign wealth funds buying up Texas land.

The Biden administration has made development of a high-speed network a priority, with Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg saying, “seeing would be believing” for skeptical Americans. Texas Central is one of a handful of high-speed rail projects in various stages around the country. The privately operated Brightline West between southern California and Las Vegas is considered the most advanced, with a groundbreaking set for Monday.

Ferdinand Marcos Jr., Philippines’ president, from left, President Joe Biden, and Fumio Kishida, Japan’s prime minister, arrive for a trilateral meeting at the White House on April 11.

Bloomberg News

Buttigieg ahead of Kishida’s visit voiced support for the bullet train to Texas media. “We believe in this,” he said in an interview with NBC 5 on April 7. “Obviously it has to turn into a more specific design and vision but everything I’ve seen makes me very excited.”

Texas Central first pitched the train in 2012 promising speeds up to 205 miles-per-hour using Japanese Shinkansen technology for a 90-minute trip between the Lone Star State’s two largest cities located 240 miles apart. The original $10 billion price tag — which originally was to be entirely privately funded — has since ballooned to at least $33 billion, with the company acknowledging it would seek public support. The Federal Railroad Administration’s (FRA) environmental review process was completed in 2020.

After more than a decade of struggles over eminent domain, lack of funds and company turnover, the project saw renewed life last August when Amtrak come on board, partnering with Texas Central and submitting joint applications to federal agencies for “further study and design work.”

An April 10 White House fact sheet named the Texas bullet train as one of the “political understandings that were affirmed or reaffirmed” between the two nations during Kishida’s visit.

“The U.S. Department of Transportation and Japan’s Ministry of Land, Infrastructure, Transport and Tourism welcomed Amtrak’s leadership of the Texas Central High Speed Rail Project, utilizing Shinkansen technologies, which was recently selected for the Federal Railroad Administration’s Corridor Identification and Development grant program,” the fact sheet said, referring to a $500,000 planning grant awarded in December. “The successful completion of development efforts and other requirements would position the project for potential future funding and financing opportunities.”

In addition to challenges from landowners and real estate interests in Texas, the project faces some pushback in Congress. Last September a pair of Texas congressmen urged the FRA to reject joint the grant applications by Amtrak and Texas Central. “At its core, this project is intended to take land from American citizens and put it under the control of a Japanese company, which is itself subsidized using money from U.S. taxpayers,” the representatives said in their letter to the FRA.

Others in Congress support the project, including Rep. Troy Nehls, R-Texas, and Rep. Seth Moulton, D-Mass. Moulton, a former director of Texas Central, last month introduced the American High Speed Rail Act, which would send $205 billion to various projects over the next five years. The bill has won the support of 41 co-sponsors, all Democrats.

The DOJ letter, dated April 5, was sent by Steve Roberts, a partner at Washington, D.C.-based law firm Holtzman Vogel, on behalf of Texas groups that oppose the project. The letter urges Attorney General Merrick Garland to launch a probe into lobbying violations.

Texas Central and its consultants “have accepted funding from, and appear to have been controlled by, Japanese sovereign wealth funds for over a decade,” the letter said. “These arms of the Japanese government stand to control huge tracts of land in Texas and are working to influence the regulatory arms of the federal government. And they are doing it all without full and proper disclosure under FARA.”

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