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Whatever happened to that Dallas-Houston bullet train?

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It’s been months since the Houston-Dallas bullet train was in the news, but that changed on Sept. 4 when a U.S. Department of Transportation grabbed the attention of Texas transit buffs.

The Federal Railroad Administration recently approved a “petition for rulemaking by Texas Central to issue a Rule of Particular Applicability (RPA)” for the proposed high-speed rail project from Dallas to Houston.

Mischa Wanek-Libman over at Mass Transit explained that “the RPA is a comprehensive set of custom rules that will be applicable specifically to Texas Central and used to govern the railroad’s system and operations between Houston and Dallas.” 

The new ruling will allow Texas Central and the FRA to move forward with the bullet train’s Final Environmental Impact Statement (FEIS), which should be ready sometime next year. The FEIS is a key regulatory requirement for the train.  

Without the FEIS, construction can’t begin. However, development of the FEIS doesn’t guarantee that the train will be rolling down the track anytime soon. Even with the FEIS, Texas Central doesn’t expect to start construction until at least 2021

The proposed train may move at a speed of 200-plus miles per hour, but the proposal for the train moves at the speed of bureaucracy. After the train was announced in 2014, Texas Central and the FRA hosted 12 public scope meetings. 

The train’s possible routes were approved in the fall of 2015.  Texas Central and the FRA released the train’s Draft Environmental Impact Statement in Dec. 2017. 

Over the next four months, representatives from both Texas Central and the FRA held 11 public meetings to discuss the DEIS.

The DEIS has been in revision since March 2018, and that was the latest news about the project until the FRA announced its decision on the RPA on Sept. 4.  However, the pace of administration isn’t the only problem in the possible train’s possible path. 

Since the train was announced in 2014, the project has intrigued individuals on either end and irritated those in the middle. It’s easy to see why people in the big cities are excited about the idea of a fast train. 

It would take passengers from the Bayou City to the Metroplex in about 90-minutes, with a stop halfway between Huntsville and College Station. The train’s speed would make it comparable to a non-stop flight and would let Houstonians get to the State Fair of Texas in literally half the time it takes Amtrak’s Acela Express to get from New York to D.C.

The problem isn’t that the train is popular in H-Town and the Big D, the problem is that the train isn’t popular with the people who live in-between. Over the past five years, Texas Central has only been able to secure about one-third of the land needed for the train’s right of way. 

Additionally, Texas Central has also lost the support of some key politicians and government agencies. In March 2016, The Brazos Valley Council of Governments passed a resolution opposing the train. 

The Ellis County Commissioners’ Court passed a resolution opposing the train in Dec. 2015.  The main reason for the opposition is rural Texans’ fear of eminent domain.

 In a dorm room philosopher meets law student twist, to stop Texas Central from using eminent domain the company’s opponents have been asking what is Texas Central? 

The question is more than an existential rumination, in Texas there are very few types of private companies that have eminent domain authority — one of those is a railroad.

If the groups opposed to the train, like Texans Against High Speed Rail, can get Texas Central declared something other than a railroad then the company won’t be able to use eminent domain to acquire land. 

Over the last few years, Texas Central has fought multiple court battles to determine whether it is or isn’t a railroad. In February 2019, a Leon County judge ruled that the company isn’t a railroad because it hasn’t laid any track. 

Leon County is famously anti-high speed rail, with elected and appointed officials speaking out against the project and the Leon County Commissioners’ Court passing multiple resolutions intended to stop the train. 

However, a previous decision in Harris County determined that Texas Central is indeed a railroad. Texas Central’s ability to perform surveys has also been the subject of a lawsuit. 

In 2017, Grimes County won a summary judgment prohibiting Texas Central from performing any surveys that damage or alter any county roads. In Aug. 2019, an appeals court in Harris County overturned that ruling. 

The three judge panel found that the lower court had “abused its discretion” in overruling objections from Texas Central’s attorneys and that the county had failed to meet its burden of proof. 

The historical problems, and current issues, surrounding the train shows no signs of slowing or stopping. Fort Worth congresswoman Kay Granger celebrated the department of transportation’s ruling. Conversely, Arlington congressman Ron Wright is opposed to the train. 

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