UPDATED June 25, 2022 - TRA Newswire -
By a 5-3 decision the Texas Supreme Court today (June 24) ruled that Texas Central Railroad does have the right to acquire a narrow strip of land to construct a high-speed rail line between Dallas and Houston. The decision culminates six months of waiting after oral arguments were heard before the high court back in January.
Justice Debra Lehrmann delivered the majority opinion of the court: https://www.txcourts.gov/media/1454463/200393.pdf and was joined by Chief Justice Nathan Hecht, Justice Brett Busby, Justice Jeff Boyd and Justice Evan Young. Dissenting opinion was delivered by Justice Rebeca Huddle and joined by Justice Jimmy Blacklock and Justice John Devine. One justice did not participate, Justice Jane Bland.
Texas Central Railway spokesperson Katie Barnes told Texas Rail Advocates "We are appreciative to the Texas Supreme Court for their time and consideration of this important issue as we continue to work on this high-speed passenger rail train."
DC-based Rail Passengers Association President Jim Mathews commented “We have been dismayed over the years to see this fight drag on given the lengths to which Texas Central has tried to appease a small group of landowners. Using an endless series of lawsuits to grind the approval process for ambitious projects to a crawl is, in the end, the same as giving veto power over all new development to anyone with deep enough pockets to front the legal fees,” Mathews said in reaction to today’s ruling. “This is one reason why the U.S. isn’t able to build ambitious infrastructure anymore, and it’s good to see the Texas Supreme Court put an end to these ceaseless and, frankly, baseless challenges to Texas Central’s status as a railway.”
In rejecting the landowner's challenge, the Texas Supremes reaffirmed a 2020 Appeals Court ruling that Texas Central is both a railroad and an interurban electric railway.
Reacting to today's ruling Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner said "I hope the decision will revive interest in the project and incentivize investors to move forward in financing and building the Houston to Dallas bullet train. As I have previously stated, I believe the construction of high-speed rail will have a generational impact, creating thousands of jobs right here in Houston and injecting billions of dollars into our local businesses. Once operational the system will build connections and opportunities never thought possible."
(Previous story posted June 23, 2022)
The death of Texas Central's high-speed rail project may have been a bit premature.
After a major newspaper printed his obituary, author Samuel Clemens, who was known as Mark Twain, was quoted that "the reports of my death have been greatly exaggerated." The same rush to judgement may also hold true for Dallas-based Texas Central Railway.
Media reports over the last week indicated that with the departure of CEO Carlos Aguilar and with most all of the staff released, the railroad was on life support. That report was cheered on by NIMBYs including three Congressional office holders, Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton (who remains under indictment) a gaggle of rural officials and an organization called Texans Against High Speed Rail.
What is perplexing is that the Texas Supreme Court, which held oral arguments in January, has not rendered its opinion if Texas Central has eminent domain authority to obtain a narrow strip of property from a landowner for the high-speed railroad. Other decisions from January are starting to percolate from the Texas Supreme Court, but not the Miles v. Texas Central case. There is no clear cut explanation for the delay from the Texas Supreme Court, which took up the case in January after it was first rejected last year.
"Every day that the Texas Supreme Court diddles in handing down a decision in the Texas Central case is another day that would make investment in this mega-project harder to obtain and make it more costly", according to Texas Rail Advocates President Peter LeCody. "Even though the pandemic did damage in slowing down the 240-mile long project, Texas Central was still able to get clearance from the Federal Railroad Administration for the route from Houston to Dallas. Once the case is settled in favor of the railroad they can then proceed to finalize their investors and have the Surface Transportation Board certify them as a legal operator."
The appellate court attorney for Texas Central, Marie Yeates, filed a letter with the Texas Supreme Court affirming its status as an operating company. "Contrary to such unsupported speculation Texas Central remains open for business under its new management, is continuing to seek further investment and is moving forward with the development of this high-speed train. Texas Central looks forward to this Court's opinion in this case."
Agular, who was at the helm of the Dallas to Houston high-speed rail project for six years, stepped down on June 13 and the speculation started to run rampant. Some media reports indicated the company was being dissolved, the board of directors disbanded or that no one would return phone calls.
Michael Bui, at FTI Consulting, is said to be leading the company at present. The company specializes in financial advisory services and corporate restructuring.
Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton, whose office jumped into the Supreme Court fray, wrote a legal brief that argued Texas Central was neither a railroad company nor an interurban electric railway company. Paxton said the respondents are not operating anything resembling a railroad.
TRA's LeCody countered with "based on Paxton's interpretation of a start-up railroad that that had done its due diligence but had yet to purchase a train set or lay a mile of track, it would seem that any other company starting from scratch would be locked out of Texas. Imagine a start-up company that wanted to build a pipeline, a new electric utility to provide power or a new cable or telephone company that required eminent domain authority, they would be shut out because they didn't yet have a pipe in the ground or wire on a pole. Doesn't that send a chilling message that we don't want you to do business in Texas?"
The high-speed rail project would join the mega-regions of Dallas-Fort Worth and the Houston area with frequent high-speed trains, connecting the cities in about 90 minutes. The line would link downtown Dallas and the Brazos Valley with Houston's Fortune 500 westside corridor and would offer connecting service at north and south terminals to Amtrak's national network.
Traffic on Interstate 45, which links both metropolitan areas, is expected to worsen and is frequently shut down by accidents due to the lack of access roads along most of the highway. One section of I-45 has been described as the most dangerous road in America.
The Greater Houston Partnership issued this statement in regards to today's ruling: “The Greater Houston Partnership believes that faster, safer, and more reliable connections between our region and other parts of Texas are vital to our continued economic growth. We have been and remain proponents of Texas Central Railroad’s project to link Houston with Dallas via high-speed passenger rail, and we applaud the Texas Supreme Court decision that acknowledges Texas law on eminent domain and will enable the project to advance.”
Photo credit: Texas Central