Communities on route to Houston oppose high-speed rail

A proposed high-speed rail line between Dallas and Houston has many supporters, but some in the rural communities along the proposed routes are strongly against the plan. News 8's Tanya Eiserer has more.

ELLIS COUNTY – It's been Sullivan land for 135 years. Five generations have farmed here in Ellis County.

"It's everything," said John Sullivan, 95. "I've put all of my life into working it, cleaning it up, and making it what it is."

He raised his seven children here. His sons, son-in-law, and grandson still farm thousands of acres.

Now, plans for a high-speed rail line connecting Houston to Dallas in 90 minutes are threatening their way of life.

Texas Central Railway's two proposed routes would cut north to south across Ellis County. The less-populated route would run rail lines - 80 feet across with security fences restricting access - along the utility lines that cross the Sullivan's property.

The developer said there will be no crossings at street level along the entire 240-mile route.

"It's like the equivalent of putting the Berlin Wall down the middle of Ellis County," said Carma Sullivan, Sullivan's daughter-in-law. "It's just an immovable project. It's enclosed and it's going 200 miles an hour. It will ruin our tranquility, of course, but it will also be costly to all the counties that it crosses. It's going to be disruptive to emergency routes. It's going to be disruptive to school routes. It's going to devalue property."

An environmental impact study, which is expected to take 18-to-24 months, is currently underway. Construction would take about four years, with passengers riding the rail lines as soon as six years from now.

For the big cities, it would be a boon –- a fast and easy way to move people between urban centers.

Ron Kirk, a former mayor of Dallas and cabinet secretary, signed on as a senior advisor to Texas Central Railway. The mayors of Dallas and Houston welcome the privately-funded project as progress. Mayor Mike Rawlings called the project "cool."

But rural communities along the potential routes are increasingly voicing opposition. Ellis County commissioners unanimously backed a resolution opposing the project in December.

"It's definitely a loss for our county," said Commissioner Dennis Robinson. "We haven't been able to come up with any benefits for our citizens from it. There may be a few temporary jobs, but for the most part, it all has a negative impact."

Robinson, in particular, fears the impact on police, fire, and ambulance services, noting that the rail will bisect roadways, preventing emergency workers from reaching some calls as quickly.

Rep. John Wray, R-Waxahachie, wrote a recent letter to the Federal Railroad Administration detailing his opposition.

"The long-term costs potentially far outweigh any temporary benefit," Wray wrote. "Farm and ranchland, often held by families for generations, will be divided, which creates a loss in access and in revenue for those who rely on farming and ranching to make a living."

John Sullivan's grandfather first settled the land in the late 19th century. His father was born under a tree in a little shack in 1898.

Three of sons still farm the land. They grow wheat, cotton, soybeans, cotton, and sunflowers, a crop popular with the tourists.

Family members live up and down the road bearing the family surname.

"They see this land and it's open, and they don't realize how much it disturbs the property," said his son, Jim Sullivan, 63. "It cuts my farm in half, so I have to get in my tractor and drive it an hour just to get to another field down the road."

Sullivan lives in a house he and his wife, Carma, built six years ago. Bob Beakley, one of John Sullivan's son-in-laws, lives nearby.

Beakley farms 7,500 acres and runs 500 head of cattle with his son. He said it will be devastating to farmers all along, no matter what route is chosen.

"It would be devastating," said Beakley, who has farmed for 45 years. "We hate to imagine it."

Family members say portions of their property would become effectively worthless, because it be too expensive to farm or ranch on them, given the difficulties of reaching them.

"It's a deal for a few to take advantage of persons for what they want," said John Sullivan, the family patriarch.

On Texas Central Railway's web site, it says it says it will "work closely with landowners and communities on ways to safeguard their ability to farm, ranch, commute, and generally going on about their lives."

Tell that to Lisa Sullivan.

She, her husband, and their children moved into her husband's childhood home eight years ago, just down from the road from his brother, Jim Sullivan. It's distance she could now walk, which would require to her to drive miles and miles to visit if the route is approved.

But that isn't her biggest problem.

"It's going to go straight through the front door of my home," Lisa Sullivan said. "It completely changes our entire life. We'd have to start all over."

The Sullivans also do not believe the company's statement that it will be solely privately-funded, given the expense associated with it.

"Dallas and Houston will benefit from it, but it will fall on the taxpayers to subsidize," Jim Sullivan said.

Company officials said they are committed to constructing and operating the project without public funding. It did say that the companies may be willing to take "incentives" from communities and states that offer them.

The statement said they are aware of the concerns in rural communities.

"One message rural stakeholders clearly sent us was that any corridor – no matter how narrow – can become a genuine obstacle if you need to get to the other side," the statement said.

The statement said the company is committed to identifying and mitigating "potential adverse impacts."

The Sullivans say no amount of money could replace the life they've known for generations.

They vow to fight just as they have always lived -- together, as a family.


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