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BEDFORD The Texas Department of Transportation is using its power to condemn private land so it can embark on a massive rebuild of Highway 183, also known as Airport Freeway.

The $2.1 billion project is called the North Tarrant Express (NTE). It will offer a mix of free lanes and toll lanes. For 50 years, toll profits will go to a private company.

The power of eminent domain lets TxDOT compensate landowners for taking the property it needs, and it is already staking its claim to more than 300 pieces of private property standing in the way.

But some people are raising questions about using the government's power to condemn land for the benefit of a private company.

In Bedford, the NTE will push all the way to the front door of Rex Lee's Vietnamese restaurant, slicing right through the Chili's next door. Lee s landlord wants to move his restaurant within the mall, but Lee estimates that will cost him $200,000.

What makes the NTE unique is the use of private companies to finance 75 percent of the cost. In exchange, a Spanish company called Cintra can charge tolls for 52 years. That means private companies directly benefit from the state's power to take private land.

First and foremost, this is still a TxDOT project. We're involved every day in the management of this project, and we will be for 52 years, said TxDOT spokesman Tony Hartzell.

Attorney Kevin Maguire is an expert in eminent domain at the law firm of Strasburger & Price. I think all Texans need to be vigilant to make sure that we are not delegating the power of eminent domain to third parties of any nationality, he said.

Maguire says there is no evidence of that -- yet. But he says property owners need to know their rights when going up against TxDOT.

And even renters like Rex Lee may be entitled to compensation when the NTE forces them to move.

But for a small business owner affected by the uncertainty of a giant transportation project there are some concerns you can't put a dollar figure on.

You think about it at night, before you go to bed, Lee said, so it's a little bit of stress involved.

E-mail: dschechter@wfaa.com

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