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Leon County

Time for another Texas Central legislative update

I keep thinking that Texas Central has reached a point where there’s not much that can be done in the Lege to stop them, and events continue to prove otherwise.

Dallas-Houston bullet train developer Texas Central Partners LLC said its project could be delayed by a provision added to the Texas Senate’s proposed 2020-21 budget Wednesday, even though the company is not planning on using state funds to build the high-speed rail line. The company said language added to the upper chamber’s spending plan would encourage lawsuits and “is not beneficial for good coordination and planning.” Meanwhile, project opponents cheered the provision.

The measure, authored by Sen. Brian Birdwell, R-Granbury, continues to bar state funds from subsidizing high-speed passenger rail projects but would go further than current law. It would prevent the Texas Department of Transportation from helping coordinate access to rights-of-way on state highways for the high-speed rail project until there is a final, unappealable court ruling on the project’s eminent domain authority. Debate over whether Texas Central has the right to condemn land and buy it from unwilling owners has fueled opposition to the project and led to court battles across the state. The new language was added in what’s called a rider to the proposed budget.

[…]

“Working with TXDOT is critical to the project,” the company said in a statement late Wednesday. “This rider would impose arbitrary and discriminatory restrictions for a single project and sets a bad precedent.”

Texas law allows railroads to use eminent domain to take land for projects, and Texas Central says it is one. But opponents argue that the company doesn’t count as a railroad because it’s not operating any trains — and a Leon County Court upheld that viewpoint in February.

Texas Central disagreed with the ruling, citing a previous Harris County ruling in its favor, and said it plans to appeal the judge’s decision. But as the decision stands, the company can’t condemn land in the counties under the court’s jurisdiction, according to an attorney who represented the landowner in that case.

Patrick McShan, an attorney for the group Texans Against High-Speed Rail and more than 100 landowners along the train’s route, said there may be a lengthy court battle to settle the disagreement over whether the company can use eminent domain. And that, he said, could stall the project.

“At least two years, could be four years. Whatever it is, it’s several years,” he said. “It would be a significant obstacle to the project being constructed. … I do not envision a scenario where they can obtain these necessary approvals and these necessary court rulings to prove to the state that it is justifiable and necessary for the state to expend its resources on this project.”

See here for more on that court case, and here for where things stood at the end of the 2017 session. I fondly remember thinking that if Texas Central survived that session with nothing bad happening they were probably in good shape going forward. Those were the days, I tell you. The Senate budget still has to be approved by the full chamber and then reconciled with the House budget, so there will be opportunities for this rider to get ditched. And then I can make the same foolish prediction at the end of this session and get proven wrong again in 2021. It’s the circle of life, almost.

Texas Central gets an adverse court ruling

Hard to say how much effect this will have.

The planned high-speed rail project from Houston to Dallas hit a big obstacle last week in rural Leon County when a judge there declared the project’s backers did not have authority to force landowners to sell or provide access to properties.

Opponents of the rail project on Monday cheered the ruling as a death knell for the line — albeit one that will take years to savor and finalize.

“This project cannot be finished without eminent domain and the project is completely off track,” said Blake Beckham, the Dallas lawyer who has represented opponents of the Texas Central Railway project.

Company officials said Monday many of the opponents’ claims and the significance of the ruling were exaggerated.

“Texas Central is appealing the Leon County judge’s decision and, meanwhile, it is moving forward on all aspects of the train project,” the company said in a statement.

The heart of many of the legal fights, and Monday’s decision, center on whether the company is, in fact, a railroad. Backers since 2014 have insisted the project — using Japanese bullet trains to connect Houston and Dallas via 90-minute trips as 220 mph — is a railroad and entitled to access to property to conduct surveys and acquire property via eminent domain.

“Texas has long allowed survey access by railroads like Texas Central, pipelines, electrical lines and other industries that provide for a public good and a strong economy,” the company said.

Opponents have insisted that since the company does not operate as a railroad, owns no trains and has not laid a single piece of track. it is not eligible for the access.

“Simply self-declaring that you are a railroad … does not make it so,” said Kyle Workman, one of the founders of Texans Against High-Speed Rail.

Judge Deborah Evans of the 87th District Court agreed, issuing an order Friday that found Texas Central and another company it formed “are not a railroad or interurban electric company.”

[…]

The ruling covers Freestone, Leon, and Limestone counties where the line is planned.

In previous court cases related to land access in Harris County and Ellis County, the company has been denied access or dropped its request in the face of mounting questions from the court or opponents.

“They have lost every single legal interaction,” Beckham said.

Texas Central disputed that in a statement.

“A judge in Ellis County said trials should be held on survey cases for three local property owners,” the company said. “The judge did not rule on the merits of those cases, instead only saying they should proceed to trial.”

See here and here for some background. We’re still very early in the legal process, with some procedural rulings but nothing decided on the merits yet. It will be years before the courts sort it all out, and nothing will be settled until the Supreme Court weighs in. In the meantime, there will be further attempts by members of the Lege to put roadblocks in Texas Central’s way. KUHF has more.

People who oppose the high speed rail line continue to oppose the high speed rail line

The DEIS hearings go as you’d expect them to.

Meetings to discuss a proposed high-speed train between Houston and Dallas pulled into some of the areas most opposed to the project on Tuesday night, as federal environmental meetings continue to make their way to Houston.

Residents in Jewett – perhaps the epicenter of animosity over the 240-mile line – showed up in droves to Leon County High School. At points, with a high school basketball game next door, parking was scarce as residents and elected officials from at least five counties came to the session.

[…]

Concerned about their rural character and their property rights, many landowners said they simply didn’t want train tracks crossing the county. Leon County commissioners have passed three resolutions and numerous other items intended as roadblocks to the rail line.

Many speakers Tuesday emotionally noted how the train risks their rural charm, some of whom live on land that has been in their families for five, six and seven generations. Opponents spoke of hunting and outdoor activities that the train would disrupt, along with aesthetics and possible noise and safety fears. At least two attendees suggested feral hogs in the area would run wild because of worries of shooting near the tracks.

Tales ranged from worries about a landowner’s autistic son who reacts poorly to loud noises, decades of family campouts, emergency response times for elderly ranchers and property sovereignty.

“This land is irreplaceable to us,” Logan Wilson said, reading remarks prepared for him by his daughter. “I believe we have the right to keep what is ours.”

Of 36 people who asked to speak publicly at the session, all voiced opposition to the project. About two dozen others asked about their feelings said they were against it. No one, when asked by a reporter, said they supported the train.

See here for some background. On the one hand, I sympathize with these folks. The train line will go through all these rural counties, but there’s only one station for them. I’ve no doubt I’d be unhappy in their position. On the other hand, public infrastructure projects have taken land from people since forever. It’s a price of progress, and it’s always been this way. The people affected get a chance to affect where the project is built, they get a reasonable price for the land that they lose, and let’s be honest, in this case they’d be getting a lot less attention and consideration if the project in question were another highway. I sympathize, but I think this rail line will be good for Texas, and I want to see it happen. I want the people affected to be treated fairly, but not to the point where they get a veto.

Texas Central Railway to hold “informational” meetings

I hope this effort isn’t too little, too late for them.

Backers of a high-speed rail line plan a series of meetings this month in rural areas where the proposed Houston-to-Dallas tracks could cross, setting up discussions with some of the project’s biggest skeptics.

“What we were surprised at is the amount of misinformation out there,” said Richard Lawless, chairman and CEO of Texas Central High-Speed Railway.

The company on Friday announced a dozen meetings between April 9 and April 24 in places where the rail system could be located. The meetings are unrelated to previous ones hosted by the Federal Railroad Administration, which must approve the location and design of any passenger rail service.

[…]

Waller, Grimes, Leon, Navarro and Madison counties have passed resolutions opposing the project, with many local officials saying the company has evaded some questions and failed to provide enough details to help people make an informed decision. State lawmakers have filed bills that would limit the company’s ability to acquire land via eminent domain, should that be necessary.

“We need more roads for citizens to travel to ease our existing roadways. We do not need a High Speed Railway in Texas that will only benefit a few, while at the same time disturbing thousands of citizens,” said Rep. Will Metcalf, R-Conroe, in a statement announcing his legislation in February.

Lawless said he understood some of the frustrations. The upcoming meetings, he said, will give people a chance to see what sort of system the company wants to build.

“What we’re trying to do is get at those issues with facts,” Lawless said. “The idea is to show people what (the system) looks like, to show them this is what we mean when we say, ‘no at-grade crossings.’ ”

See here, here, and here for some background on the rural opposition to the TCR proposal. Rep. Metcalf is the author of the bill that would effectively kill the rail line. It was referred to the House Transportation Committee on March 11, and as far as I can tell has not yet been scheduled for a hearing. I get the concerns that rural communities have about this, but anyone who thinks we can build enough roads to ease our existing roadways doesn’t understand what urban and suburban Texas is like these days. One way or another we are going to need alternatives to that model.

Rural counties skeptical of high speed rail plan

This is a bit concerning.

Steve Drake regularly makes the nearly four-hour drive from this city to Houston to visit his fiancée’s family. So he was excited about the news that a private company intended to build a bullet train that would cut that trip to 90 minutes.

“I’m passionate about this. I hope it happens,” Drake said at a recent public meeting. “I don’t want to be driving to Houston for the next 30 years.”

Drake’s sentiment echoed that of others at the first of six meetings held as part of the Federal Railroad Administration’s environmental impact study into Texas Central Railway’s proposed bullet train. The project has also drawn strong support from officials at the other end of the project in Houston.

Yet the reception has been less rosy from rural communities that will be on or near a possible train route. Officials and residents have expressed concern about the noise from trains whizzing past their quiet towns dozens of times a day and about a track dividing farmland and reducing property values.

“I haven’t heard anything positive about it whatsoever,” said Byron Ryder, the county judge in Leon County, which is about halfway between Dallas and Houston. “I’ve talked to other judges and commissioners up and down the line, landowners up and down the line. No one wants it.”

I was a little surprised to read this, as I know from previous communications with Texas Central Railway that they have been doing outreach in the rural communities along I-45. It may be the case that the communities weren’t really paying much attention before – we’ve only been talking about high speed rail in Texas for what, 30 year now? – and thought this was just another piece of pie in the sky. With the Environmental Impact Statement process going on, however, now it’s getting real, and people may be reacting more strongly as a result. In addition, it’s not that long ago that these folks were hearing about a network of privately built and managed toll roads that would be going through rural counties, with little apparent benefit to them. One can imagine why they might have some doubts here. Obviously, I think this is a project that’s worth doing, and I hope these communities can be persuaded there’s something in it for them, or at least that they won’t be harmed. Clearly, TCR has some work to do.

In Grimes County, where the two routes take different paths, Betty Shiflett, the county judge, said many residents felt they did not have enough information to develop an opinion. One factor that would weigh heavily, she said, was whether Texas Central Railway followed through on plans to build a station in Grimes County to allow the bullet train to serve nearby College Station.

“I think people would be a lot more enthusiastic because they would probably take it,” Shiflett said. “I know I would, definitely.”

I’m sure they would. I seriously doubt there would be a station anywhere except Houston and Dallas (and maybe The Woodlands) when it debuts in 2021, assuming all goes well. Stations cost money, and they mean slower overall travel times. Maybe at some point down the line, but not any time soon. Of course, you do have to build the line now to have any hope for one in the future, whenever that may be. It’s your call, Grimes County.