In a rebuke of a private firm’s plans to build a bullet train between Houston and Dallas, local officials in rural southeastern Texas moved Tuesday to restrict high-speed rail development in their corner of the state.
Grimes County commissioners voted unanimously to require high-speed rail developers to acquire a permit and provide sufficient proof of eminent domain authority before building a rail line over county roads, according to Ben Leman, the Grimes County judge.
The requirement could present a new hurdle for Texas Central Partners as it prepares to build a 240-mile, 90-minute bullet train between Houston and Dallas, a controversial project that has pitted urban supporters against rural opponents in counties like Grimes.
Construction is slated to start in 2017 and run through 2021 at a cost of more than $10 billion. Texas Central maintains that private sources, not taxpayer money, will fund the project, but its detractors — including Leman, also the chairman of Texans Against High-Speed Rail — are unconvinced it represents the good investment the company says it is.
It is unclear whether the measure from Grimes County, where there are plans to build one midway stop east of College Station, could block Texas Central’s plans to build the bullet train. The company has long argued that it has eminent domain authority under the Texas Constitution and state law — but would only turn to it as a last resort.
On Tuesday, Texas Central released statements repeating that argument and affirming that “this high-speed rail project will continue, working closely with local governments to make this project a success for each community it will serve.”
“Texas statutes, as interpreted by courts and not county governments, have long granted eminent domain authority to railroads such as Texas Central, pipeline companies, electric power companies and other industries that provide the infrastructure necessary to serve the public efficiently and enjoy a healthy economy,” the company said in a statement.
The statement also criticized the Grimes Commissioners Court decision as “another delaying tactic.”
Leman, who previously filed a petition in opposition to the project, remains skeptical. The local measure will “clarify if they have eminent domain or not,” he said. “They claim to have it, or they publicly say they have it, but they’ve never demonstrated any proof of it in any court or any other entity.”
The eminent domain question has been a recent focus of the high speed rail debate. State Rep. Byron Cook, R-Corsicana, asked Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton to rule on the issue in June, and following a federal transportation board’s recent decision that the project falls under the state’s jurisdiction, some lawmakers expect to debate it during the 2017 legislative session.
Leman acknowledged that Texas Central could seek action from the state Legislature to overrule the county's action next year, but he argued that the commissioners were addressing a gap in regulation and have clarified how to address other similar projects.
“I’m not saying that the fight is over,” Leman said. “I don’t think it’s the end of the rail, so to speak.”
Disclosure: Texas Central Partners has been a financial supporter of The Texas Tribune. A complete list of Tribune donors and sponsors can be viewed here.