HB 3312 relates to the disposition of property that has been acquired by a high-speed rail project under threat of eminent domain.
In explaining to the committee why he believes this bill is needed, Harris said, “Texas Central has a history of making promises but doing the opposite. We must step in with reasonable protections and act on behalf of the landowners.”
The bill would require that, in the event that the project is not built within 10 years of the original purchase, the landowner is given the first opportunity to purchase the land back at the original purchase price. A similar remedy is available in Texas when land is purchased for public use under condemnation proceedings but then the public use is discontinued.
Harris distinguished HB 3312 from other remedies because it would apply in situations where a purchase is made by an entity that “represents itself as having the power of eminent domain,” as opposed to actually purchasing the land under condemnation proceedings pursuant to actual eminent domain authority.
He contends that Texas Central represented to landowners along the route that it had the power of eminent domain and therefore placed pressure on landowners, many of whom were unrepresented, to sell.
Some purchases were made, according to Harris, after Texas Central promised the legislature in 2019 that no purchase option contracts would be exercised until after the project had acquired the necessary permits and financing to proceed.
A resident and landowner in Ellis County who testified before the committee reminded the members of the failed “Superconducting Supercollider” project that failed in Waxahachie.
“We gave up so much for a 14-mile hole in the ground.” She indicated that she has similar doubts about the viability of the high-speed rail project that would dissect her land.
“Our land is priceless to us, and we don’t want it stolen for a project that is not viable. We need your protection,” she told the committee.
Travis Kelly, a representative of Texas Central who appeared before the committee, says the company opposes the bill because it unfairly targets a single company and imposing additional regulations on a real estate transaction between two private parties.
He also said that in 2019 the company was functioning under the belief that the environmental approvals and financing would be in place by the end of the year. He added further that some landowners were anxious to close on the option contracts and so Texas Central proceeded with those purchases.
Pressing further, Leman asked Kelly if the company had all the financing and permits necessary to move forward. “This bill is needed because we can’t rely on the things your company says to this body,” Leman told Kelly.
He pointed out that some of the parcels of land have been transferred into the ownership of a Japanese firm based in the Cayman Islands that is at least partially funded by the Japanese government. Kelly had earlier denied that any foreign government owned land acquired by Texas Central.
“I call this the bait and switch bill because landowners have been subject to a bait and switch,” Harris said in closing.
Also heard by the committee was HB 3633 authored by Leman would establish a “High-Speed Rail Legislative Review Committee.”
As envisioned in the bill, the review committee would be composed of three state senators and three members of the house of representatives, appointed by the lieutenant governor and speaker of the house.
A proposal would be submitted to the review committee, which would determine whether the project is “financially and technically capable of constructing and operating high-speed rail facilities.”
Leman pointed out to the committee hearing that a previously existing Texas High-Speed Rail Authority was abolished in 1995 so that no state agency currently exists to regulate these matters.
“Since 2014, Texas Central has said [that construction] was less than a year away,” Leman pointed out, and yet nothing has been built.
“Texans no longer hold title to heritage land,” Leman emphasized. “We must step in and be the adult in the room and put appropriate regulations for high-speed rail.”
Leman believes his proposal brings balance by looking at the public benefits, necessity, and the financial means of a high-speed rail project.
Harris County resident Christy Parker took off time from her job as an ICU nurse to testify before the committee. She accused Texas Central officials of trespassing several times on her property even after she had a court order to prevent them from doing so. “We are asking for relief and protection.”
Parker supports Leman’s proposal as warranted state oversight. “If the project is viable, then they should welcome the process.”
Texas Central opposes HB 3633, claiming that it creates a lengthy, drawn-out process when effective regulatory structures already exist.
Kelly, a representative for Texas Central, testified about the reviews performed by the Federal Railroad Administration, Surface Transportation Board (STB), Texas Commission on Environmental Quality, and U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.
The Texas 13th Court of Appeals ruled last year that Texas Central is a railroad and has eminent domain authority, Kelly reminded the committee members. He added that recourse if available to landowners through the courts if Texas Central violates eminent domain and condemnation requirements.
The bill is aimed at stopping “a private project just when it is at the cusp of moving forward,” Kelly said. “A vote for this bill is a vote to kill the Texas high-speed rail project.”
Leman questioned Kelly about the status of any application by Texas Central to the STB, which will review its financial viability and ridership projections among other issues. Kelly conceded that the application has yet to be filed with the STB.
Additionally, Texas Central admitted last year that its costs have tripled and that it plans to seek federal funding for the project.
Leman expressed to Kelly that “we have a responsibility and you should have a responsibility to ensure that the proper regulatory structure exists to protect private property rights. It should be a priority.”
Both bills were left pending in the committee.
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Kim Roberts is a reporter for the Texan in the DFW metroplex area where she has lived for over twenty years. She has a Juris Doctor from Baylor University Law School and a Bachelor's in government from Angelo State University. In her free time, Kim home schools her daughter and coaches high school extemporaneous speaking and apologetics. She has been happily married to her husband for 23 years, has three wonderful children, and two dogs.