Transportation: Cy-Fair residents unsure about new Texas high-speed rail as project stalls

HOUSTON, Texas — As construction began on Master Dunham Pointe’s planned community in Cypress, future residents gathered on an unofficial community Facebook group in February to meet new neighbors.

While most discussed closing dates for their homes, several would-be residents posted mentions of the proposed Texas Central high-speed train passing through their homes, with some noting that their developers had not given an opinion on the plan. status of the project.

The video is from a previous report.

Michael Fang, who moderates the Facebook group, said Community Impact Journal in an email that, although the railroad was a big “what if” during his family’s buying process, the railroad’s procedural hurdles ultimately convinced him that it was unlikely that he succeeds.

“A high-speed train will not only affect Dunham Pointe; it will also affect neighboring communities such as Fairfield, Bridgeland and Towne Lake. We have decided that we have already built our lives in the region and we will overcome all obstacles when the time comes,” Fang said.

The Dallas-Houston high-speed rail project, which was announced in 2014, was scheduled to begin construction in 2021, according to Texas Central’s previous estimates from 2015. It will use a system inspired by Japanese Shinkansen high-speed trains to transport passengers between the two cities in 90 minutes, according to the Texas Central website.

RELATED: More than 8 years later, high-speed train project promising 90-minute trip from Houston to Dallas still lacks permit

However, a lawsuit by a Leon County landowner has gone to the Texas Supreme Court challenging the right of Texas Central in the power of eminent domain to condemn properties. Texas Central has also faced questions about its ability to fund the $20 billion project.

Christie Parker, Harris County landowner and board member of the nonprofit Texans Against High-Speed ​​Rail, said her personal experiences with Texas Central and its prominent domain authority have made of the project a no-start for her.

“We’ve worked with legitimate eminent domain in pipelines, gas transmission, etc. We’ve never had a problem with any of them,” Parker said. “It’s only been with Texas Central.”

RELATED: Texas Supreme Court Begins New Hearing Against Bullet Train Construction

Texas Central officials did not respond to questions or interview requests from Community Impact Journal by press time. Dunham Pointe developer NPH Development declined to comment.

Property acquisition and process

Fang said he had to sign a disclosure agreement during the home-buying process, acknowledging that if the railroad went ahead, there was nothing there could be done by builders and developers in Dunham Pointe.

“When we were going through the sales process, we asked our builder the question, and the response was that our guesses were as good as theirs,” Fang said.

Texas Central has yet to acquire property in the Dunham Pointe Subdivision, according to the Harris County Assessment District Parcel Viewer. According to HCAD, forty-two county parcels are registered with the Texas Central Railroad and Infrastructure, with the majority of them located in the White Oak Falls Subdivision near the freeway. 290 and highway. 6. These parcels were all acquired before 2021.

Additionally, the Northwest Mall, which Texas Central previously announced as the site of its Houston station, is registered under Cadiz Development LLC. In October, Cadiz Development was announced as one of the companies merging to form a separate company called Texas High-Speed ​​Rail Station Development Corp. to build railway stations.

A 90-minute trip to Dallas gets closer to reality

According to its website, the planned route of the railway would pass through several businesses and residential communities in Cy-Fair, including the community of Stone Gate and Camden Cypress Creek apartments. Additionally, The Connection School of Houston, a private school on House & Hahl Road, is located across the road, and several Cy-Fair ISD campuses are nearby. Property management companies responsible for communities and officials at The Connection School and CFISD did not respond to requests for comment.

The future 43-acre mixed-use Village Center development in Jersey Village is also down the road. Mayor Bobby Warren told a February town hall that the train was being considered throughout the development of the Jones Road and Hwy property. 290, but with the Texas Supreme Court decision pending and state lawmakers expressing their intention to introduce bills to protect rural landowners, Warren said he is uncertain about the future. of the train.

“If the court finds they don’t have eminent domain power or if the legislature takes it away from them, I suspect that would probably mean the end of high-speed rail,” he said.

According to the federal government’s permitting dashboard, which tracks infrastructure projects across the country, the high-speed rail project had passed its first permit checks in September 2020. However, the project has not yet building permit receipt from the Surface Transportation Board. The STB denied a petition from Texas Central for an exemption from construction approval requirements in July 2020.

Peter LeCody, president of Texas Rail Advocates, a Dallas-based nonprofit, suggested the company was waiting for the Texas Supreme Court case to be resolved before proceeding with the license acquisition.

“If I was an investor with Texas Central, I would wait to see what the Texas Supreme Court has to say,” LeCody said. “Once that is solidified, Texas Central can present what it has to the STB.”

Funding issues

Several Texas Central critics have raised questions about Texas Central’s ability to raise funds for its project, with the company’s own estimates fluctuating over time.

A 2018 memorandum of understanding between Texas Central and the Harris-Galveston Area Council metropolitan planning organization said Texas Central “will not seek federal or state funding for the deployment of their project.”

H-GAC transportation officials have confirmed that the project is included in the organization’s 2023-2026 Transportation Improvement Plans, where its current entry lists it as receiving $3.3 billion in local funds.

Texas Central made an announcement of its fundraising so far in 2015, announcing an initial private investment of $75 million. The announcement has been removed from the company’s website, but is accessible via archived versions.

In May 2021, Texas Central CEO Carlos Aguilar testified before the United States House of Representatives Transportation Committee and its Subcommittee on Railroads. Aguilar thanked the committee’s efforts in 1998 to pass House Resolution 2, a bill that includes a program that guarantees federal loans of up to $3.5 billion for projects.

RELATED: Spain-based Renfe on board as first operator of Texas Central high-speed train

Texas Central did not respond when asked about its plans to use state or federal funding. In documents filed with the Supreme Court of Texas, company attorney Marie Yeates said the company had spent $125 million since 2019 to acquire railroad cars and other ‘marketplaces’. .

In a separate March 30 filing, six counties on the railroad’s proposed route argued the company was in default of paying property taxes in the eight counties it covers. Taxes owed total $622,975, with Harris County accounting for $216,359 of the money, according to the brief.

Eminent Domain

The Texas Supreme Court heard oral arguments from Yeates and attorney Jerey Levinger, representing Leon County landowner Jim Miles, on January 11 as part of its rehearing.

Miles led the lawsuit in 2016, arguing that Texas Central is not by definition an “intercity electric railroad company” and therefore cannot use the power of eminent domain to inspect and convict the property. According to Kellen Zale, professor of property law at the University of Houston, eminent domain can be used by state agencies or private companies that demonstrate significant public use.

Businesses using eminent domain to survey or condemn property must provide landowners with a “landowner’s bill of rights,” according to the Texas Attorney General’s office. This Bill of Rights outlines the requirements for entities using the power, including that they provide a written assessment.

Parker said in an interview that Texas Central provided him with no record of their eminent domain title or Landowner’s Bill of Rights when they attempted to survey the property, which also serves as a place of business business. marriage for his family.

“They tried several times, and towards the end they sued us for not letting them,” Parker said. “We got an injunction, but in 2019 we learned that Texas Central had trespassed anyway to conduct an investigation for the Texas Historical Commission.”

During oral argument on January 11, Levinger argued that since Texas Central does not operate railroads, it cannot be defined as a railroad company.

Matthew Festa, a professor at the South Texas College of Law, said the plaintiffs adhered to “dictionary definitions” of a railroad company.

“What I find very interesting about this case is that it seems that both sides of the argument are based on general common sense rather than legal niceties, because it seems that the plaintiffs are saying that the ‘Operating a railroad means you have to operate a railroad,'” Festa said. “The common sense argument of the ‘defendants’ is, ‘We have to use eminent domain to become a corporation that operates a railroad and we can’t do that until we have your land.'”

Although Texas Central has not publicly provided its future construction milestones or an updated schedule, the company has signed construction and operating partners, including Spanish rail operators Renfe in 2021, Community Impact Journal Previously reported.

The Texas Supreme Court is expected to rule on the case before June, according to Festa.

This content is provided by our partner ABC13 at Community Impact.

Jose P. Rogers