High-speed rail in the U.S. appears to be veering off track.
Within two weeks in February, projects in California and Texas were dealt blows. The Federal Railroad Administration intends to cancel grants for the California High-Speed Rail project, and a judge said the Texas Central Railway cannot use eminent domain to acquire land to build a bullet train from Houston to Dallas.
The U.S. Department of Transportation announced that, effective March 5, the FRA will cancel $929 million in federal grant funds yet to be paid for the California High-Speed Rail project envisioned to connect the Los Angeles Basin with the San Francisco Bay Area.
DOT also announced it is exploring every legal option to recover $2.5 billion in federal funds previously granted for the project. FRA Administrator Ronald L. Batory notified the California HSR Authority (CHSRA) of the FRA’s intent in a letter.
Unless the CHSRA proves the project can move forward, the FRA will de-obligate the full $928,620,000 under the agreement.
The action came a few days after the Texas Central Railway ruling. In a case brought by Leon County landowners, 87th Judicial District Judge Deborah Oakes Evans ruled that Texas Central Railway cannot use eminent domain to secure land for the line because it’s not a railroad or interurban electric rail.
Blake Beckham, a Dallas lawyer who represented opponents of the project, said the Texas Central cannot be finished without eminent domain. “The project is stymied,” he said, “and I don’t believe it will ever be built.”
Jim and Barbara Miles began legal action in 2016 asserting that Texas Central had no right to take land to build the railroad, which is estimated to cost $12 billion-$15 billion.
Texas Central Railway said it will contest the ruling.
Holly Reed, TCR’s managing director of external affairs, said the judge’s decision isn’t a fatal blow, citing previous and pending court decisions.
“Texas Central plans to appeal the Leon County ruling, as it directly contradicts the previous ruling made in Harris County, which did recognize Texas Central as a bona fide railroad company,” Reed said. “None of this changes our daily focus on working with landowners, working through the technical and environmental details, and helping to reach out to communities and supporters.”
In an earlier decision a Harris County judge affirmed Texas Central’s rights under state law to conduct surveys on private property for determining the best route. Reed also noted that a judge in Ellis County decided not to order a summary judgment in the cases Texas Central brought to access three landowners’ properties; those cases are going to trial.
Last week California Gov. Gavin Newsom announced that the California HSR project, estimated to cost $77.3 billion, is being scaled back to just the segment servicing the Central Valley. Then the FRA issued a letter to the California State Transportation Agency saying it was pulling money to fund the original project.
FRA Administrator Ronald L. Batory said in the letter that CHSRA failed to meet required state expenditures necessary to advance the project according to schedule and cannot complete the project by 2022. The FRA also said the CHSRA has failed to effectively manage and take appropriate corrective actions to ensure delivery of the project.
CHSRA has until March 5 to convince the FRA that it has satisfied its obligations under the agreement, is making a reasonable effort to deliver the project, and that Newsom’s announcement “does not constitute a fundamental change in the purpose of the overall project for which federal funding was awarded.”
In an address to state lawmakers Newsom said there isn’t a path to get from Sacramento to San Diego or San Francisco to Los Angeles but that a 119-mile link between Merced and Bakersfield will go on as planned.
Newsom said the rest of the project, which some have estimated could cost nearly $100 billion, is not dead. He said he will seek additional funding.
The project has been in the works since voters approved $10 billion in bonds in 2008.