Eminent Domain at the Heart of Controversy in Proposed Texas Bullet Train Construction

The potential use of eminent domain authority is at the heart of a controversy over a proposed bullet train that would connect Dallas and Houston.

During this legislative session in Austin, which is held for the first five months of the year, Texas Central Railway is hoping lawmakers do not do anything to prevent its $12 billion project from moving forward. The project would use Japanese technology allowing riders to make their way from Houston to Dallas in just about 90 minutes - a trip that typically takes 4 hours or more by car or truck.

Rural Republican lawmakers are asserting themselves, arguing the project could end up being costly to taxpayers and the company might use eminent domain to condemn land for construction.

Texas Central Partners, however, has been working to purchase real estate from landowners along the train's route rather than go through the eminent domain process.

The lawmakers working against the rail line – including powerful chairmen like Rep. Byron Cook, R-Corsicana, and Sen. Charles Schwertner, R-Georgetown – along with some others have filed about 20 pieces of legislation aimed at slowing down the project.

Those bills would do things like prevent the use of state dollars for private high speed rail projects, restrict private entities from using eminent domain for such rails and prohibit private high speed rail companies from entering land to survey it – unless the company is deemed a railroad by TxDOT.

Reporter Eleanor Dearman at the Quorum Report, an Austin-based political newsletter, quotes Chairman Cook as saying “it is not a railroad, and therefore, it does not have eminent domain authority."

From Dearman’s report:

Cook’s bill – part of the raft of legislation filed Tuesday and a companion to Sen. Schwertner’s bill – would establish that “a private entity may not exercise the power of eminent domain for the purpose of developing or operating a high-speed rail project.” If for some reason an entity is given that authority, the bill sets repurchase rights for landowners.

Chris Lippincott, executive director of Texas Rail Advocates, said the bills are “as unsurprising as they are disappointing.”

“Adding more government bureaucracy will damage efforts to build the train infrastructure Texans want,” Lippincott said. “Our Legislature should be in the business of expanding transportation options and embracing innovation. We hope legislators don’t fall victim to a vocal minority who would have our state bury its head in the sand by ignoring our growing population and clogged roads. Texas deserves better.”

Holly Reed with Texas Central Partners said these efforts to stymie the project are misguided. The project would bolster the economy as long as more government regulation does not get in the way, Reed said.

“Contrary to the national focus on infrastructure projects that stand to create tens of thousands of jobs and benefit millions of people, it is ironic that the proposed legislation calls for more government regulation in trying to block a free market led project that will create jobs and generate economic development,” Reed said. “The effort to take away a safe, reliable and productive transportation choice runs counter to the values and principles of so many Texans who are clamoring for it.”


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