Part 8: Supporters Cautiously Optimistic Following Court Decision

Written by David Peter Alan, Contributing Editor
image description

It also seemed hardly possible that an all-Republican Supreme Court in the Lone Star State would allow the entity to keep going, especially since many Republicans sided with the property owner who claimed that Texas Central had no right to step onto his land. But the Court pulled off a surprise move and sided with Texas Central, and the advocates and others who had hoped for that result are making themselves heard.

As we reported in our analysis of the decision in Part 6 of this series, the Court did not hold that Texas Central is a “railroad.” Only three members went on record as saying that in a concurring opinion. The majority ruled, instead, that it is an “electric interurban railway company,” some sort of descendant of the old interurban lines like the Texas Electric Railway that connected cities and towns in the Lone Star State and much of the rest of the country during the first half of the 20th century. Nonetheless, the decision was not a full stop indication, but more like a signal to proceed at restricted speed.

A yellow signal is not as good as a green one, but it’s better than a red one, so individuals and organizations who advocated for the Texas Central project breathed a sigh of relief and seemed ready to celebrate, even if the celebrations might be somewhat subdued. Perhaps Peter LeCody, President of Texas Rail Advocates, summed up the reactions the most succinctly, calling the decision a “miracle.” For advocates, it was time to take notice of a legal victory that had appeared impossible, or nearly so. 

Shortly before the ruling was handed down, the Texas Rail Advocates continued to put up a good front, even when a favorable decision seemed unlikely, at best. The organization’s website started its report this way on June 23, one day before the Court spoke: “After a major newspaper printed his obituary, author Samuel Clemens, who was known as Mark Twain, was quoted that ‘the reports of my death have been greatly exaggerated.’ The same rush to judgment may also hold true for Dallas-based Texas Central Railway.” 

But there was still an expression of concern in the report: “What is perplexing is that the Texas Supreme Court, which held oral arguments in January, has not rendered its opinion if Texas Central has additional eminent domain authority to obtain a narrow strip of property from a landowner for the high-speed railroad. Other decisions from January are starting to percolate from the Texas Supreme Court, but not the Miles v. Texas Central case. There is no clear cut explanation for the delay from the Texas Supreme Court, which took up the case in January after it was first rejected last year.” 

While no one outside of staff members are allowed to know what judges discuss when they deliberate on a case, it seems reasonable to suppose that there were some frank discussions involving a number of issues that were raised. It could not have been easy for the members of the Court to come to the decision they delivered, especially since they must face the voters to keep their jobs, and essentially all members of their party who expressed opinions about the case supported Miles, the landowner-plaintiff, and not Texas Central. 

After the decision came down, the TRA Newswire story on the Texas Rail Advocates site did not editorialize about the ruling, but reported the reactions of other individuals and organizations. For instance: “Texas Central Railway spokesperson Katie Barnes told Texas Rail Advocates, ‘We are appreciative to the Texas Supreme Court for their time and consideration of this important issue as we continue to work on this high-speed passenger rail [project].’” 

Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner issued a statement after the ruling that said: “I support the Texas Supreme Court ruling that the Texas Central high-speed rail project has eminent domain authority under Texas law. I hope the decision will revive interest in the project and incentivize investors to move forward in financing and building the Houston to Dallas bullet train. As I have previously stated, I believe the construction of high-speed rail will have a generational impact, creating thousands of jobs right here in Houston and injecting billions of dollars into our local businesses. Once operational, the system will build connections and opportunities never thought possible.”

One contractor that stands to build much of the infrastructure for the project expressed its satisfaction. Webuild S.p.A., otherwise known as the Webuild Group, a construction firm headquartered in Milan, Italy, issued a press release in the wake of the decision that said: “A U.S. high-speed train is coming closer to becoming a reality. The Texas Supreme Court has ruled in favor of Texas Central LCC and affirmed its right under Texas law to acquire via the established eminent domain process land needed to build a railway for high-speed travel between Dallas and Houston. Texas Central is the company in charge of developing the project. Webuild and its subsidiary Lane will build all off of the civil works, valued at $16 billion. The project will provide an enormous boost to sustainable mobility in the United States, which will join other countries that today offer public transport at high speeds, such as Japan, China, France and Italy. The train will be based on the Tokaido Shinkansen of Central Japan Railway, the safest mass transit system in the world.” Webuild also said that the project would, in essence, create 37,000 construction jobs and 1,500 permanent jobs. 

Although he had called the decision a “miracle,” LeCody was more sanguine than jubilant. He told Railway Age: “You don’t see major projects like this, in the $20 billion to $30 billion range, coming down the pike every day. These are complex, multi-layered projects that involve government bureaucracies at all levels, bringing together domestic and international financing, and it doesn’t happen overnight. There are a lot of baby steps required to get to the finish line. It certainly hasn’t helped Texas Central between the pandemic, the endless court cases and, frankly, some damaging and ill-informed statements from rural elected officials at the federal and state levels.” He did express some optimism, though: “I think that Texas Central will be in a rebuilding phase during the next 12 to 18 months. They got beaten down by the courts, the media, and some politicians. A lot of it was unjustified, but there is still support in North Texas and Houston for the project. Let’s hope that things progress.”

Jim Mathews, President of the Rail Passengers’ Association (RPA), reported his organization’s take on the decision the day it was rendered. He commented: “When Miles declared his intention to take his case to the state’s Supreme Court, we told you that Miles would have to get the Court to do two extraordinary things in order to win—ignore Texas’ Code Construction Act and repudiate a then three-year old decision the Supreme Court already made about how to meet the test of being a common carrier. Today’s Texas Supreme Court ruling echoed Appellate Judge Nora Longoria’s original reasoning and declined to do either of the unlikely things Miles asked.”

The High-Speed Rail Alliance, which advocates primarily for projects of that nature, commented on its blog: “Earlier this week, before the court released its verdict, Texas Central underscored its intentions to keep moving forward, noting that ‘Texas Central remains open for business under its new management, is continuing to seek further investment, and is moving forward with the development of this high-speed train. Texas Central looks forward to this Court’s opinion in this case.’ The project’s next steps are uncertain. But one thing is crystal clear: The bullet train is desperately needed.”

The Rail Users’ Network (RUN) advocates for more trains and better rail transit from a rider-focused perspective. RUN Chair Richard Rudolph told Railway Age: “Some people say the Court’s ruling went too far, but there are 1.3 million people in Dallas and 2.3 million in Houston, so Texas Central’s trains will get people out of their cars. If it gets those people to their destinations faster, so much the better. We don’t have anything else that fast anywhere in the country, even the Acela trains on Amtrak’s NEC, which only run at high speed for a few miles.” He added that we need to reduce our carbon footprint, and good train service can help toward attaining that goal. 

The rider-advocacy community has supported the Texas Central project strongly, as they almost always support any project that would give the traveling public a new or an enhanced rail option, for their trips. The advocates we quoted praised the Court’s decision, but did not seem overjoyed by it, as surprising as it was. Still, they seemed cautiously optimistic that Texas Central’s proposed line will be built, and high-speed trains will run. Even cautious optimism is a long way from the recent prevailing view, when Carlos Aguilar had quit Texas Central and it looked like the Court would drive the final nail into its coffin. 

Political supporters like Mayor Turner are still on board with the project, too, and firms like Webuild are ready to work. As LeCody warned, though, this is the time for rebuilding, the project must still be financed, and there are a lot of steps from here to the finish line. We will examine the prospects facing Texas Central in a commentary that will conclude this series, at least until new developments occur. 

Tags: ,