ANDERSON - Stretched across the historic Grimes County Courthouse steps, eight rural Texas sheriffs stood united March 1 seeking answers to their public safety concerns of the proposed Dallas to Houston high speed rail project.
"These fine men behind me and I have all taken an oath to protect and serve the citizens of this great state - each day we work to ensure their protection and quality of life and make sure it is maintained," said Sheriff Don Sowell of Grimes County. "This coalition of sheriffs represents counties between Dallas and Harris, from Ellis County to Waller County."
Sowell spoke as the chairman of the recently formed Sheriff's Coalition, which includes Glenn Smith of Waller County, Travis Neeley of Madison County, Kevin Ellis of Leon County, Dennis Wilson of Limestone County, Charles Edge of Ellis County, Jeremy Shipley of Freestone County and Elmer Tanner of Navarro County.
The sheriffs represent eight of the 10 counties Texas Central Partner's proposed project is expected to impact - the coalition did not include the sheriffs of Harris County or Dallas County.
"This coalition came together on common ground, we came to stand together for public safety, security because we are concerned about the proposed high-speed rail project between Dallas and Houston, and the safety of our citizens," Sowell said. "I do want to mention that not present today are scores and scores of sheriffs that have heard about this ... from the panhandle to the border and all points in between that support this coalition."
According to Sowell, the sheriffs within the coalition had concerns regarding how the project may impact law enforcement and first responder activities.
"For well over four years now, Texas Central has been working in Texas to advance their project and within the Draft Environmental Impact Statement published by the Federal Railroad Administration there was a generic section on public safety, prior to the publication of this document, not one sheriff's office had ever been contacted by Texas Central or the FRA to coordinate public safety aspects of this project as it relates to our counties," said Sowell. "Only after they learned about us having this sheriff's meeting a couple weeks ago, did I receive, and my colleagues receive, an email with an attachment of numerous pages of a study. That did give us some information."
According to Sowell, a representative of Texas Central did call his office the week prior to Thursday's press conference asking for representatives of the company to meet with him.
"Texas Central's commitment to public safety is absolute and unwavering," said Texas Central representatives in a written response after the sheriffs' press conference March 1. "The bullet train will bring the safest mode of transportation available and we look forward to working cooperatively with county judges, sheriffs and other local officials to develop world-class public safety, system security, and emergency preparedness plans of which all Texans can be proud."
During the press conference, Sowell said that the motivation behind the sheriffs meeting and developing the coalition was because all of the meetings in their counties had been concluded and they wondered "if the comment period ends March 9, how in the world can we digest this documentation? We are only just learning some of this information."
"No sheriffs were ever contacted - I called each of them and asked them the same question and there is a common denominator here, I asked the county judges and commissioners," said Sowell. "I am really not that hard to find, and it would have been nice over the period of time (to have dialog). I run my office and live my life by the three C's - communicate, cooperate, coordinate - and you cannot fail if you follow these three things."
According to Texas Central's website, "beginning in May 2016, Texas Central was in regular contact with sheriffs' departments during land surveying activities." However, each of the eight sheriffs disagreed with this statement.
"The first contact I received from TCR was Feb. 13, 2018," Neeley said.
"Texas Central's project has been so poorly managed that the public is finding incredible flaws within the Draft EIS the including errors in sales tax and emissions calculations, so we aren't surprised that in their haste to respond to the Sheriff Coalition's concerns about Texas Central's lack of coordination that there was yet another error in what was told to the media and the public," said Kyle Workman, President of Texans Against High Speed Rail. "This only heightens concerns that TCR's information is completely flawed and based on incorrect statutes. Perhaps this is why they think they have eminent domain? The simple fact remains ...Texas Central hasn't coordinated with our local first responders, and it's way too late in the game to make it seem like they have."