Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Lone Star Rail hopes to move UP freight to Coupland area

The Statesman’s Ben Wear has provided an update on moving freight rail out of Austin to the Coupland area to make way for passenger rail on Union Pacific’s Austin line. Here’s the link to his column “A rail district by any other name still needs money.”

Recently, the Austin-San Antonio Intermunicipal Commuter Rail District held a news conference to announce that they have changed their name to the Lone Star Rail District.

Wear notes, “[T]he train service is still mostly a line on a map. As agency board chairman Sid Covington says, the main obstacles to creating a commuter line between Austin and San Antonio are now and always have been Union Pacific freights and money. . . . To make commuter rail viable, almost all of Union Pacific's freight runs would have to be moved to new or refurbished tracks east of the existing tracks.”

The 2008 Central Texas Rail Relocation Study shows two alternatives for the freight rail—expanding the rail line that goes through Coupland or constructing a new line from Taylor to San Antonio through the countryside west of Coupland. Wear points out, “Rerouting the Union Pacific trains from Taylor . . . would cost anywhere from almost $900 million . . . to $2.4 billion. The rail district last year was saying that construction of the line itself would take another $600 million.”

The Lone Star Rail District hopes that TxDOT and Union Pacific will pay for the alternate freight route.

Wear reports, “As for the passenger rail construction — 16 stations, trains, track and signal improvements, maintenance facilities — Lone Star officials see TxDOT paying half, the other half split roughly in thirds among governments in the Austin area, Bexar County and Comal and Hays counties.”

Right now, there is no money for this construction. What is new now is the Rail District will receive $40 million from the Capital Area Metropolitan Planning Organization and the San Antonio Metropolitan Planning Organization for design work and the environmental process. Wear says that these studies will begin early in 2010.

Saturday, November 21, 2009

Don't squander groundwater resources in Eastern Central Texas

Following the article in the Austin American-Statesman on November 10 that was the subject of our previous post, the paper ran coverage on November 18 of a second large pipeline planned to bring water from the east to the San Marcos area, “Looking east for a water supply.”

Yesterday, the Statesman ran a thoughtful editorial discussing these huge depletions of our area’s water resources and what sort of controls could be implemented so that the available water will be used for the good of the public. Here’s the link to the editorial “Can’t let it come down to the last straw.”

Some excerpts:
“The American-Statesman's Asher Price reported earlier this week that the Guadalupe-Blanco River Authority is talking to a water developer firm about buying 45 million gallons of water per day from Bastrop and Lee counties for consumption in the San Marcos area.

Lee and Bastrop residents would have every right to question why ‘their’ water would be shipped elsewhere. Under Texas law, groundwater is a commodity, like any other, to be bought and sold to the highest bidder.

“’If they all ramp up in the next 10 or 15 years, we won't possibly be able to dish out that much water,’ said Pat Cooper, Lost Pines general manager. The amount Limmer [End-Op, the company directed by former Williamson County Commissioner Frankie Limmer] has applied to pump — if actually pumped — would ‘take us to our limit and beyond our limit when you look 40, 50 years out,’ Cooper said.

“That's a lot of pumps sucking up the water underneath Bastrop and Lee Counties with minimal objective oversight . . . Given the competition that already exists and the increased demand for water, the Legislature is going to be asked to referee. . . . Inaction risks exhausting the supply so that everyone loses.”

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Water profiteering on the backs of rural landowners

If you are in the Eastern Williamson/Travis area, another project to be aware of is the new water pipeline of Cross County Water Supply Corp. This project was covered by the Statesman on November 10: “Pipeline nearing approval to deliver water to Manor area—Project is part of race to bring water for development near Texas 130.”

At the time this article was written, approval by the Travis County commissioners had not yet been secured, but they have since approved the project. Up to $40 million in tax-exempt bonds would be used to build a 52-mile water pipeline from Burleson County through Lee and Williamson counties to the Eastern Travis County area. Please click on the link to the article to see a map.

The Statesman notes that the project “is part of a lucrative race to serve the semirural area around Texas 130. . . [T]he transformation of the land into subdivisions and shopping centers is contingent on the shipment of water, and whoever delivers it could profit handsomely.”

Cross County is set up as a non-profit. However, behind Cross County are for-profit entities hoping to “profit handsomely” on the backs of rural property owners. The Statesman says, “Cross County counts as its customer Blue Water Systems, run by Austin real estate investor Ross Cummings, which has developed wells in Burleson County, said Pat Reilly, a director of Cross County. Blue Water, in turn, has a deal to sell water to publicly traded Southwest Water Co., Reilly said.”

Burleson County landowners Terry and Linda Ausley have been sued by Cross County because they would not give permission for the company “to perform topographical, environmental and geotechnical surveys on their land as a prelude to acquiring an easement for the water pipeline.”

The Ausleys have countersued, saying that Cross County “was formed . . . as a Texas nonprofit corporation for the sole purpose of fraudulently providing a mechanism for obtaining easements below market rate via threat of condemnation for purposes of securing a pipeline location . . .”

Fraud is already connected with this project. The Statesman notes, “The water would come from groundwater leases in Burleson County originally acquired by Metropolitan Water Co., whose president and founder is William Scott Carlson. In 2004, Cummings put up $1 million to cover Carlson's bail after he was jailed for violating the terms of his probation in a fraud case.”

Sunday, November 8, 2009

Prop 11 passes overwhelmingly--analysis from Corridor Watch

Thanks to Linda and David Stall for all their work against the Corridor for many years and for their recent analysis of the passage of Prop 11. As they point out, Prop 11, with more protection against eminent domain, passed by the largest margin of any proposition on the ballot, with a four to one margin. Over 80 percent of the voters were for Prop 11.

Corridor Watch says:
"This vote provides Texas property owners greater protection from the kind of eminent domain abuse opportunities created by the United States Supreme Court ruling in Kelo vs. City of New London. It makes it harder for the state to expand the number of entities that can exercise eminent domain power. It limits excessive use of eminent domain in the name of eliminating urban blight. And, most importantly it sends a strong message to the Governor and Legislature that Texans take private property rights very seriously.

"With Proposition 11 passed, additional protections are still required to fully protect private property rights. The legislature needs to revisit the kind of protections that would have been created under House Bill 2006 as introduced, overwhelmingly passed and vetoed by Governor Perry in 2007. Property owners deserve full and just compensation for property seized by the government. Property owners also deserve compensation for diminished access that results from the use of eminent domain.

"In vetoing HB-2006 in 2007 Governor Perry said that it would cost the state too much. We believe that seizing private property should be hard, should be expensive, and should only be used as the last resort.

"Projects like the Trans Texas Corridor (TTC) need to stand on their own merits and not on the state's ability to take land away from private owners at costs well below market value. And most importantly, state power should never be used to seize private property for the purpose of generating state revenue, whether it's by lease, sale, or toll concession.

"The TTC was always about generating revenue first and providing transportation second. Proposition 11 is another step forward in our effort to ensure that the threat on private property created by the TTC (no matter what new name it may be given) never returns."

Corridor Watch and other property rights advocates like the Texas Farm Bureau are ready to come back at the beginning of next session to try to get additional eminent domain protections. The passage of Prop 11 makes this job easier than it would have been if Prop 11 had not passed. If the voters had not passed Prop 11, it would have sent a message to our elected officials that the people were not really that interested in getting more protection against eminent domain.