Opponents of the Houston-to-Dallas high-speed rail project are taking a district judge's recent ruling as evidence that, from a legal standpoint, the company behind the controversial project basically doesn't exist.
Specifically, Texans Against High-Speed Rail, a group that has been working doggedly against the proposed 240-mile bullet train line, says that Harris County District Judge Joseph Talbach's order last week denying Texas Central's request for a final summary judgment on a lawsuit against landowner Calvin House means the company created to oversee the building of this one line is not actually a railroad.
And therefore, the definitely-not-a-railroad can't use eminent domain to force landowners to allow access to their properties, the thinking of the anti-bullet-train people goes. However, Texas Central says this order only means the two sides will have to actually go to trial and fight this out in court.
This came after months of back and forth between Texas Central and House, the owner of 440 acres in northwestern Harris County, who denied Texas Central employees entry to his land. In August, after House refused to give the company permission to enter his property, Texas Central filed a lawsuit and asked for a temporary injunction to give it access.
The company's lawyers were clear in their filings. They asked for the injunction to force House to let Texas Central on his property, not because they didn't have the right already — Texas Central's lawyers stated unequivocally in the court documents that the company did have the right — but because they felt this approach was the "safest and most prudent course of conduct."
But the Texas Central lawyers subsequently withdrew that injunction request in late September after opponents of the high-speed rail line argued that the company is not technically a railroad because it currently does not own any tracks or trains and does not currently operate a rail system. Based on this logic, the lawyers representing House contended, Texas Central had no business trying to exercise eminent domain powers.
Over the past few months, the two sides have continued to tussle in court, with filings defining what constitutes a railroad while other court documents delved into detailed consideration of whether Texas Central has to be "operating" a rail line in the present tense or the future tense to be allowed to use eminent domain.
But on Friday, the case wrapped up, for now at least. Halbach signed an order denying Texas Central's request for a final summary judgment "in its entirety."
That's it. There's no other comment on the actual heart of the matter — whether Texas Central exists as a railroad or not.
Texans Against High-Speed Rail crowed about the order. "Hopefully now, after having lost twice in its own backyard, Texas Central will finally realize that – in Texas – merely saying you’re a railroad doesn’t mean that you are a railroad," the group stated in a release.
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However, Texas Central says that the order only means the two sides will have to go to trial over this issue, and insists Halbach's order said nothing more or less than that.
"The judge’s two-sentence decision only declined the company’s request for summary judgment, meaning the debate will be heard before a full trial. Contrary to what opponents are saying, he did not issue any opinion on the company’s operations or its rights under state law," Texas Central states. "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."
The company statement added that it needs to be able to conduct land surveys like the one it wants to do on House's land because this is the best way to determine the "most advantageous high-speed train route." The company states that it looks forward to having its day in court on the matter. The trial is scheduled to start July 3.
Despite the impending trial, House was happy with the orders. “Texas Central came to my property six different times asking for a survey. Every time they told me they had eminent domain," House ruminated, according to the release. "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."