Back to court: Landowner files pre-suit deposition against Texas Central Railroad

A Harris County landowner recently filed a petition seeking a deposition to investigate potential claims against Texas Central Railway.
KBTX News 3 at Ten(Recurring)
Published: Feb. 1, 2023 at 9:48 PM CST
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HOCKLEY, Texas (KBTX) -Property owners in the path of the proposed 240-mile high-speed train that would connect the cities of Houston and Dallas are following through on their threats to take the railroad to court.

In September, attorneys representing nearly 100 property owners across nine Texas counties sent a letter to the rail company seeking the status of the highly anticipated project. Landowners along the route say the financial stability of the company, absence of leadership, and lack of transparency from Texas Central make it difficult to believe the project will move forward.

Plans for the high-speed train began in 2014 with land acquisitions following shortly after. According to Texas Central’s website, construction was set to kick off in 2021 but opponents say they’ve seen no signs of life from the company.

Landowners along the route say they’ve suffered long enough and should be allowed to move on with their lives if the project is no longer going to happen. They also say with a project of this magnitude looming over their property makes it difficult to sell or make any modifications to their land.

Dallas-based Beckham Portela Trial Law is representing the property owners.

“Enough is enough. If Texas Central will admit that it no longer intends to construct and operate the Project, Landowner will non-suit this Petition for a Rule 202 deposition. If, on the other hand, Texas Central continues to stubbornly insist that it intends to construct and operate the Project, Landowner respectfully requests that the Court order Texas Central to present a corporate representative for deposition to answer questions regarding any such claimed intentions. The likely benefit of allowing the Landowner to take the requested deposition to investigate potential claims far outweighs the burden and expense of the procedure,” the petition said.

Calvin House is the Harris County landowner that is asking the 298th Judicial Court in Dallas County to order Texas Central to present a representative for deposition to answer questions under oath on several topics. However, it remains unclear who will represent the railroad publically.

Carlos Aguilar stepped down as president and CEO of Texas Central in June of last year. Since his departure, very few statements have been made publically concerning the company or its future. Landowners and opponents of the project say Texas Central’s lack of apparent leadership is one of the driving forces behind their questions.

“About seven months ago, Carlos Aguilar announced his resignation as Texas Central’s CEO, lamenting that he “could not align our current stakeholders on a common vision for a path forward.” His biography has been missing from Texas Central’s website for nearly a year and no executive team members are currently listed on the website. In addition to Aguilar’s departure as CEO, Texas Central’s entire board of directors was recently disbanded,” the petition said.

The petition also calls into question the company’s recent sale of properties.

“Texas Central recently sold a number of potentially impacted properties (or portions of them) that it previously represented it must acquire in order to construct the Project. Texas Central has allowed many properties it does still own to become dilapidated due to lack of care and maintenance, as recently reported by various media outlets. The toll-free hotline(1-844-TX-TRAIN) formerly reserved for landowner inquiries has been disconnected for months. Texas Central’s main office number has been going straight to voicemail for months. Delinquency notices sent to the address listed for Texas Central in the Secretary of State records have been returned undeliverable. Texas Central’s Houston office located at 1021 Main Street, Suite 1570 was recently listed for lease,” the petition said.

Lawyers also cite that Texas Central has not applied for a construction project despite the claim that construction would begin in 2021.

“Two and a half years have passed, and Texas Central has yet to file its application for a construction permit. Were it ever to do so, federal statutes would require Texas Central to disclose how it intends to finance the Project and the amount of funds for financing presently available, along with a recent balance sheet and income statement. Texas Central’s refusal to file an application for a construction permit after being explicitly instructed by the Board to do so over two years ago suggests that Texas Central has no intention of ever doing so,” said the petition.

Attorneys and land owners continue to question Texas Central’s right to operate as an interurban electric railway despite the railroad’s victory in the Texas Supreme Court last June. They say the court’s decision was based on “facts as they existed in August of 2018″ and things have changed since then.

“Nearly four and half years have passed since the record on which the Texas Supreme Court made its decision closed, and the landscape has changed dramatically. Texas Central has long spent the money it initially raised and there are no signs that Texas Central has secured additional funds or financing. Texas Central has no employees. The technical experts that Texas Central engaged years ago have moved on to viable projects. Texas Central is no longer purchasing property along the Project’s proposed route; instead, Texas Central is selling some of the properties it claimed it must acquire in order to construct the Project. According to federal regulators, Texas Central hasn’t been in contact with them in years. At the state level, Texas Central has not proposed any legislation for the upcoming session and does not appear to be actively engaging legislators,” said the petition.

Lastly, attorneys say the benefit of allowing the Landowner to take the requested deposition outweighs the burden or expense of the procedure.

“ The landowner seeks only to determine, in good faith, whether he should pursue claims for declaratory relief against Texas Central. As previously explained and shown in the attached exhibits, Landowner tried repeatedly to obtain the requested information prior to seeking court intervention, but Texas Central has refused to provide the requested information. Permitting the Landowner to investigate his potential claims through a Rule 202 deposition will be far less burdensome and expensive for the parties than the time, resources, attorneys fees, and costs entailed in prosecuting and defending an actual lawsuit. Certainly, allowing Landowner to take the requested Rule 202 deposition will be far less costly and burdensome than the lawsuit Texas Central filed(and then dismissed)against Landownerback in 2016,” the statement said.

Christie Parker’s father-in-law filed the petition and helps manage the family’s wedding business in Hockley. She says the most frustrating part of the situation for her and others in the community is not being able to make business decisions about their properties.

“We want to move on with different things. Some people want to build houses some people want to see pieces of their property and we just have this hanging over our heads,” said Parker. “We want to know what’s your next step. What are the next steps that we need to plan for, you know, we’re just wanting some answers.”

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Waller County Judge Trey Duhon is the president of Texans Against High-Speed Rail. He says it’s beyond time for Texas Central to make its true intentions known, not just to landowners but to the public in general.

”We are just trying to get permission from the court to basically you know do some discovery, take a deposition and find out what’s going on with TCR cause we can’t get any answers that satisfy us that there’s anybody that even has the authority to act on their behalf,” said Duhon. “We have repeatedly asked who the officers of the corporation are who has the authority to make decisions on behalf of TCR and we just haven’t gotten any straight answers.”

Both Duhon and Parker say the project continues to harm their communities.

“We have properties that are in disrepair that have not been kept up so I mean if we can’t keep up just some properties up and down the line how are we going to be managing a 40-plus billion dollar train project,” said Parker.

“We have people here that live in this neighborhood that have to look at this every day. They have to deal with probably loss and property value because they’re next to an eyesore,” Duhon said. “The people around here that have been living under this cloud for years, the people that are right next to the high-speed railroad that doesn’t know whether or not it’s going to go through, they deserve to know whether or not this project’s going happen.”

Duhon says advocates and local officials will continue to fight for the rights of property owners.

“Right now everything points to this being dead in the water and they just don’t want to admit that it’s actually dead,” said Duhon. “Even when you cut the head off of a snake you can still get bitten and we are very careful right now. We’re watching every move that they make on the state and federal level and we’re going to continue to do that until this is officially dead and gone.”