District Judge Joseph “Tad” Halbach denied Texas Central Railroad summary judgment in a land survey case in Harris County Dec. 16, sending the case to full trial scheduled for July 3, 2017.
Texas Central is in the process of surveying land to determine the best route for the proposed rail. As a result of Halbach's ruling, the company will not be able to survey on the defendant's property until after the trial.
Texas Central officials said, although they were disappointed in the court's decision to send the case to a full trial, they believe their arguments will be successful in the end.
“Contrary to what opponents are saying, [Halbach] did not issue any opinion on the company’s operations or its rights under state law," the statement said. "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. This is needed to determine the most advantageous high-speed train route.”
Texans Against High-Speed Rail—a group opposing the project—is contesting the idea that Texas Central is an official railroad company under state law and therefore does not have eminent domain authority; in other words, Texas Central does not have the authority to force private landowners to sell their land. TAHSR released a statement celebrating Halbach's decision.
Grimes County Judge Ben Leman, who also serves as chairman for TAHSR, said Texas Central has continually sued landowners and trespassed for more than a year. Texas Central officials said they have respectfully worked with landowners, and they will continue to do so.
Kyle Workman, president of Texans Against High-Speed Rail, said the ruling did not surprise him.
“They knew this issue was before the courts, but that hasn’t stopped them from bullying their way onto property while misrepresenting themselves as a railroad with the power of eminent domain,” Workman said. “We call for Texas Central to immediately cease their underhanded tactics to gain access to private property, as they have no right to demand access or coerce option contracts with private property owners.”
Officials with Texas Central said the 90-minute trip would be safe, affordable and more efficient than driving. They also claim the entire project will be privately funded, and no tax dollars will be used.
Texas Central is currently conducting an environmental impact study, which is expected to continue through early 2017. At this time, it is unclear whether the case will impact the company's plans for construction, which could begin as early as 2018. The rail was originally projected to be open to passengers by 2021, but this estimation has since been pushed back to 2022.