Texas high-speed rail project ramps up Washington lobbying efforts

Texas high-speed rail project ramps up Washington lobbying efforts
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A Texas high-speed rail project is ramping up its outreach in Washington as President Trump begins to assemble a massive infrastructure package, which is expected to include a number of “shovel-ready” transportation proposals.

Texas Central Partners, a private firm developing a high-speed rail line between Dallas and Houston, has tapped Washington powerhouse K&L Gates to lobby on the “development of high speed rail system in Texas.”

Stephen Martinko, a government affairs counselor at K&L Gates, is expected to act as a lobbyist for the Texas company, according to disclosure forms. Martinko is a Capitol Hill veteran and former aide to the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee and former chief of staff to Chairman Bill Shuster (R-Pa.).
 

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The lobbying hire follows on the heels of a recent meeting in Washington between Drayton McLane Jr., who sits on Texas Central’s board of directors, and Department of Transportation (DOT) Secretary Elaine Chao.

"We’ve had ongoing conversations with the folks at DOT,” Holly Reed, managing director of external affairs for Texas Central, said in a telephone interview with The Hill. “One of our board members was in town and met with Secretary Chao. She even mentioned [the issue] in a recent speech at the National Governors Association."

Texas Central Partners has been making a pitch to the administration about why its effort to bring the first high-speed train to the United States is an ideal candidate for Trump’s promised $1 trillion rebuilding package.

Trump has promised to modernize the country’s ailing transportation system with a major injection of cash. He even lamented the lack of high-speed rail service in the U.S. during a meeting with top airline executives at the White House.

“You go to China, you go to Japan, they have fast trains all over the place,” Trump said. "I don’t want to compete with your business, but we don’t have one fast train.”

But the Texas project, which is being built exclusively with money from private investors, says it doesn’t need any government funding — it's just looking for a green light from the administration.

“It’s very unique that there would be no federal grant money involved,” Reed said. “When you look at some of these [wish] lists, there is concern about how do you pay for all of it?”

Texas Central is planning to build a 205 mph bullet train that would offer a 90-minute trip between Houston and Dallas-Fort Worth. The rail system would help connect two of the state’s fastest-growing cities.

But the project needs to clear a few federal regulatory hurdles before it can start construction. Several environmental reviews need to be finished, while the Federal Railroad Administration needs to issue a new safety rule to oversee a train that operates at such a high speed. It also faces some fierce grassroots opposition and potential legal battles in the state.

“We’re focusing on what the regulatory reform conversation would look like,” Reed said. “We can be an example of how to do the regulatory piece instead of the finance side.”

The administration has vowed to provide regulatory relief in its infrastructure investment bill, which Trump said will be funded through a mix of public and private financing. 

Trump has placed a high priority on shovel-ready projects that could be started within 90 days and signaled interest in the construction of high-speed railways during a recent meeting at the White House, according to The Wall Street Journal.

Shuster also previously said the infrastructure package could include projects that are already in the works but that have been stalled by the slow federal permitting process.

The Texas high-speed rail project could serve as a model for the types of privately funded projects that Trump may target in his bill, especially amid concerns from fiscal conservatives about massive federal spending on transportation.

“Let me say something about where some of these other dollars are going to come from: There are billions and billions of dollars out there today, private-sector dollars, that are going to be spent," Shuster said at a recent conference of transportation officials.

But the construction of high-speed railways in the U.S. has also been divisive. In Texas, landowners are worried about the property that will be required to erect the new rail line, while others fear the project will eventually require a buy-in from the government.

And some GOP lawmakers have blasted a high-speed rail project in California, which has received billions from the federal government, because it has been mired in delays, almost doubled its budget and lowered its initial speed projections.

“We think providing additional funding at this time ... would be an irresponsible use of taxpayer dollars,” a group of California Republicans said in a recent letter.