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High-speed train developer withdraws lawsuits against Texas landowners

Texas Central says it will return to negotiating with property owners whose land may be needed for a rail line from Dallas to Houston, rather than seeking a court order to survey the land.

Japan Central's N700 high speed train, the same train that a private firm wants to bring to Texas.

Editor's note: This story has been updated throughout.

The private developer of a planned bullet train between Dallas and Houston has withdrawn more than a dozen lawsuits against Texas landowners that sought court orders allowing the company access to private property to survey land for the 240-mile project.

Texas Central Partners officials said they are instead going to try to have an “open dialogue” with landowners about letting the company onto their land.

“We’re stepping back and going back to conversations and taking some of the heat out of our process,” said Texas Central President Tim Keith.

Texas Central Partners is developing a 240-mile bullet train line intended to transport passengers between Houston and Dallas in 90 minutes with a stop near Bryan. The company has partnered with Japanese train operator JR Central to bring its bullet train technology to Texas. The project has drawn support from officials in Houston and Dallas but opposition from communities and landowners that are expected to be near the train's route.

In court filings, the company argued that state law allows it to enter private property to survey land that may be used for a potential route because it is a railroad. A group called Texans Against High-Speed Rail has said the company shouldn't be considered a railroad because it doesn't currently operate any rail lines.

In one Harris County lawsuit, attorneys for a landowner echoed that argument. A trial on the merits of those legal arguments was set for July, according to the Harris County District Clerk’s office.

Keith said Tuesday that the company was confident it would have secured a ruling in its favor. Texas Central and landowners had already settled 21 other similar legal filings. The company said the decision to withdraw the remaining suits was largely based on the fact that it's already reached access and land-purchase options with more than 3,000 landowners.

But opponents on Tuesday saw the withdrawals in a different light.

"In our opinion, this clear evidence that they understand they will not get a desired ruling in the court system that they want, which is that they are a railroad with eminent domain authority," said Ben Leman, chairman of Texans Against High-Speed Rail. 

Also on Tuesday, Texas Central said it had secured land-purchase options on about 30 percent of the parcels needed. The company said it has also executed land-purchase options on about 50 percent of the land needed in both Grimes and Waller counties, northwest of Houston. The project is especially controversial in Grimes County.

Leman, who heads the group opposed to the project, is also the county judge in Grimes. He said people signing land-purchase agreements with a company that says it can use eminent domain does not mean the landowners support the project.

A land-purchase option essentially means that the company and a property owner have reached an agreement on how much the firm will pay for any land that may be needed for the route. The company pays an up-front fee that the owner can keep regardless of whether the firm eventually needs their land once the route is finalized.

Disclosure: Texas Central Railway has been a financial supporter of The Texas Tribune. A complete list of Tribune donors and sponsors can be viewed here.

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Transportation High-speed rail