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Texas high-speed rail plan suffers eminent-domain setback in court

Texas Central Partners wants to build a high-speed rail line from Houston to Dallas using Japanese technology.
Texas Central Partners wants to build a high-speed rail line from Houston to Dallas using Japanese technology. Texas Central Railway

Supporters of a proposed high-speed rail line from Houston to Dallas will have to prove in court that they have the power under Texas law to enter private property and conduct land surveys for their project — and ultimately use eminent domain to buy property needed for the route.

A Houston-area district judge has denied a request for summary judgment by a unit of Texas Central Partners, which aims to open bullet-train service from Houston to Dallas by 2022. The company, which wishes to deploy Japanese technology for the passenger rail system, wanted the court to declare outright that it meets the definition of a railroad under Texas law and therefore has the right to enter private property and conduct surveys, even if the land owner doesn’t wish to cooperate.

But Harris County District Judge Joseph “Tad” Halbach on Dec. 16 denied the request. The case involves Calvin House, who was sued by Texas Central this year after declining to allow surveyors onto his land. It’s one of more than 30 lawsuits filed in various counties along the route over the issue.

Opponents of the high-speed rail proposal celebrated the judge’s ruling, calling it a “devastating blow” to the project.

“As it stands, Texas Central has no legal right to enter onto private property, nor does it have the right to force landowners to sell their property under the threat of eminent domain,” members of a group opposing the project, Texans Against High-Speed Rail, wrote in a statement.

Texas Central officials said they were disappointed with the ruling, but pointed out that it merely sets the stage for a trial on the issue beginning July 3.

“The decision does not set any kind of precedent, and we will show in a full trial that state law, established for more than a century, clearly gives railroad companies the right to conduct land surveys without interference,” Texas Central said in a statement. “This is needed to determine the most advantageous high-speed train route. We will demonstrate that in the trial and look forward to our day in court, scheduled July 3.”

The proposed rail line would offer passengers the ability to travel from Houston to Dallas in about 90 minutes, on trains traveling more than 200 mph.

The news release from Texans Against High-Speed Rail, which is helping House organize his legal defense, included a statement from House.

“Texas Central came to my property six different times asking for a survey. Every time they told me they had eminent domain. Then, they sued me, and I had to hire a lawyer,” House said. “Now I see why they never could show me a piece of paper saying they had eminent domain like condemning authorities are required to do. It’s because they never had it to begin with. I’m glad the court ruled in my favor, but I sure didn’t like being harassed for months, sued and forced into court.”

Gordon Dickson: 817-390-7796, @gdickson