The Religion of Roads
Texas is known for its commitment to limited government, individual responsibility and personal liberty. At least it likes to think of itself that way. When it comes to transportation — specifically automobile transportation — Texas is one of the most socialist states in the country, taxing and spending at amazing rates with an additional predilection towards borrowing enormous sums of money to build even more government-backed infrastructure.
So while it is impossible to reconcile the Texas approach to transportation with the caricature many Texans hold of themselves, once you get past the rhetoric and realize that roads are a religion in Texas — that the automobile is an object of worship — some of what happens there becomes explainable.
Case in point, the Texas Central High-Speed Railway, a privately financed bullet train to carry passengers between Houston and Dallas in less than 90 minutes. The company undertaking the project has said it hopes to have the train running by 2021 and has vowed to not take any public subsidies.
This would seem to be a very Texas-like undertaking if Texas truly were a state that embraced limited government and individual liberty when it came to transportation. That’s just rhetoric, however, which is why there is currently legislation proposed to stop the Texas Central High-Speed Railway by taking away their eminent domain authority.
Currently, hundreds of private firms have eminent domain authority in Texas, including pipeline companies, utility companies and telecommunication firms. More than a dozen private railroad companies also have that authority, according to an unofficial list maintained by the state comptroller.
So why take away the railroad’s ability to acquire property? They are paying market prices. They are fairly compensating property owners. Maybe it is because the notion of eminent domain — the potential for taking (with compensation) the property of individuals is distasteful. From the same article:
[Texas Central Chairman and CEO Richard] Lawless also noted that the bullet train’s footprint over its 240-mile route would be 100 feet wide and 3,000 acres total, a far cry from the Trans-Texas Corridor, which was expected to be 10 times wider than that in some areas.
What if they make a profit? Better to have socialist roadways than private trains in Texas.
If it’s a highway, take all the property needed. If it’s a high speed train, well…..the commitment to limited government intervention in the marketplace becomes a little wobbly.
Yet, the dogmatic opposition to any transportation not in an automobile is even more offensive to the Texas value system than death by regulation. Here’s Republican Bob Hall of Edgewood lamenting that this railroad investment may result in the company making a (gasp) profit.
Yet at Wednesday’s hearing, Republican senators expressed concern that a private company was going to use eminent domain authority for a for-profit venture.
“Eminent domain is probably the most horrific power that the government has, and to dole that out to individual companies that can misuse that or use it for projects that result in profits, we have to be very careful about doing that,” Hall said.
Since when did the pursuit of profit become a bad thing, Texas? Do we not expect our road contractors and utility companies to make a profit?
In fact, Senator Bob Hall has some very conflicting views on his website, given his current outspoken support of this legislation. For example, he indicates:
State government has no business attempting to pick winners and losers and doling out tax dollars to special interests any more than the federal government does.
On that same page, he also states under the heading “Free Markets” that he believes Texas should:
Eliminate all government regulations that restrict free trade of goods and services beyond those specifically necessary to protect free trade and the public from unscrupulous practices.
Apparently in Bob Hall’s world — and many others that practice the same Religion of Roads — it is not picking a winner or a loser to give one approach eminent domain power and not the other. It is also apparently not an unscrupulous practice to restrict the trade of goods and services if those happen to run by train, not automobile.
We can also gratuitously note again that one of these approaches is a socialist, communal undertaking while the other is a completely private sector, non-subsidized undertaking. Guess which one free market Bob Hall opposes with the heavy hand of government regulation?
Do you know what I think should happen? I think:
Texas state lawmakers should focus on sound fiscal planning and return transportation to its core purpose — guaranteeing the free association of people to exercise freedom in the market place for the exchange of goods and services.
…which is apparently what Senator Bob Hall thinks as well because I took that quote directly from his web site.
This debate should be an embarrassment to you, Texas. It runs contrary to everything you think you are. Let the train be built. It will get done more quickly than California’s, provide better service, be profitably operated and ultimately be a shining example of the success of a market-based approach. Do this right and the contrast with California’s HSR will be stunning in a way that will be good for America.
Texas, don’t screw this up!
— Chuck Marohn
Originally published at www.strongtowns.org on April 17, 2015.