Don't believe it the next time you hear that Republicans always favor the free market and the private sector over government monopolies and more taxes. That's because the truth about a lot of elected Republicans is being played out in stunning and disappointing fashion in none other than the bright red state of Texas. But this week, true conservatism did eke out a victory.
Here's the scenario: a private company wants to spend billions of dollars to develop a high speed rail link between Houston and Dallas. Please note that I wrote the word "private," because it is a private U.S. company with a partnership with a successful private rail company in Japan. The company is called Texas Central Railway and it promises the rail link will get passengers from Houston to Dallas and vice versa in 90 minutes. Driving between those two cities can often take between three and four hours even in non-rush hour traffic.
Like many conservatives, I prefer the personal freedom of driving in my own car. But like all true conservatives I like the free market even more, and I strongly support the right of private investors to take a shot at making money by offering Texans the option of cutting their travel times between the state's two biggest cities by more than 50%. I'm also a pragmatist who knows that better mass transit options are needed throughout the country right now, and I'd like to see private industry take the lead.
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You might expect the rail link's detractors to be big government types who don't trust private companies and think major projects like this should only be managed by the government and built by union workers. But you'd be wrong. There is liberal opposition to be sure, but the really potent opponents of the project are a handful of Republican members of the Texas State Senate. They say they're representing the rural landowners who could see their property destroyed or values diminished by a rail line moving through or close to their land. But those same GOP lawmakers never seemed to have much of a problem when much of that same rural land is condemned and seized by the state to build the state's ever growing number of roads. As cutting edge urban planner Charles Marohn has often noted, cars are like an irrational religion for too many American citizens and politicians, and Texas is that religion's holiest ground.
The good news is that earlier this week, the legislature narrowly killed the bill that would have bureaucratically frozen the project by stripping private companies and the state Department or Transportation from ever condemning land specifically for railroads. Conservatives who rightfully oppose the concept of eminent domain should not be fooled into thinking the bill really had a problem with that legal convention. If it really did, it wouldn't single out banning eminent domain just for railroads alone. It was the high speed rail project that was and will remain the target for these legislators, Republicans and all. eminent domain objections are just a cover.
I hate to cast any further aspersions on the GOP state senators in Texas who are standing in the way of private industry. But that's what they're doing and I suspect it's because almost all entrenched elected officials are likely to become addicted to the trappings of government power. They also can often succumb to crony capitalism masquerading as the free market. Constitutional conservative critics of our national Republican leaders like House Speaker John Boehner and Senate Leader Mitch McConnell know exactly what I'm talking about. The existing framework for road contracts and transportation spending is entrenched in Texas and most of our other states. Even though the high speed rail project is still alive for now, perhaps the folks at Texas Central Railway just haven't made enough donations or hired enough of the right lobbyists yet to enjoy an even smoother legislative ride. I know that's a cynical way to think, but does anyone doubt that there's a lot of history and facts to back me up on this score?
But there's something decidedly not cynical in this story. Whatever the reason for the local Republican opposition, it's important for all conservatives to understand how important this project is for the cause of economic freedom. Most Americans today have no idea that privately funded and operated mass transit is even a possibility. That's despite the fact that just such a system exists in Japan and is the envy of the modern commuting world. A successful project like this in Texas would be a very strong argument against the government-only funded and operated infrastructure statist liberals have been pushing for years. And it will be a conservative free market jackpot if this project gets up and running and becomes popular before any real progress is made on the very publicly funded and managed high speed railroad planned in dark blue California.
Until then, keep your eyes on this project and whatever new challenges it will inevitably face from political powers in both parties in Texas.