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Texas Supreme Court: $30 billion bullet train project has authority to seize land

In a 5-3 decision, the court ruled Texas Central — the Dallas company planning to build the railway — has eminent domain authority.

DALLAS — A divided Texas Supreme Court has given the proposed high-speed bullet train between Dallas and Houston renewed life, at least on paper.

In a 5-3 decision, the court ruled Texas Central — the Dallas company planning to build the railway — has eminent domain authority. The ruling comes a little more than a week after opponents of the controversial project thought it was dead after Texas Central's CEO resigned, leaving the company without any top management.

The $30 billion train has been in the works for years. If built, it would travel at a speed of up to 200 miles per hour and enable passengers to commute between Dallas and Houston in about 90 minutes, according to Texas Central. The company argues the project will benefit Texas by taking cars off roads, creating thousands of jobs and generating billions of dollars in economic impact.

Many Texas land owners whose properties sit in the proposed path of the train oppose the project. James Miles of Leon County sued Texas Central in 2019 challenging whether the company has the authority to use eminent domain to take property for the project.

In siding with Texas Central, the court's majority said their decision focuses narrowly on the issue of eminent domain, not about the merits of the train.

"At the outset, it is important to recognize what this case is about and what it is not about. The case involves the interpretation of statutes relating to eminent domain; it does not ask us to opine about whether high-speed rail between Houston and Dallas is a good idea or whether the benefits of the proposed rail service outweigh its detriments," Justice Debra Lehrmann wrote for the court.

Lehrmann was joined in the majority by Chief Justice Nathan Hecht and Justices Jeff Boyd, Brett Busby and Evan Young. Justices John Devine, Jimmy Blacklock and Rebeca Aizpuru Huddle dissented. Justice Jane Bland, who joined the court in September 2019, did not participate in the decision.

One of the central questions during the case has been whether or not Texas Central actually meets the definition of being a "railroad." The trial court decided the entities comprising Texas Central do not qualify as either railroad companies or interurban electric railway companies and granted summary judgment to the landowner. The appeals court reversed the lower court's decision and ruled the entities qualify as both.

The Supreme Court majority ruled Texas Central has eminent-domain power as interurban electric railway companies and said it did not to address whether they also qualify as railroad companies.

In a dissenting opinion, Justices Huddle, Blacklock and Devine said the ruling "resurrects a 115-year-old statute" governing interurban electric railways", which they described as "sisters to the trolley car" popular in the late 19th century.

"No one questions that the statute ... granted eminent-domain authority to facilitate construction of small electric railways for ferrying Texans short distances between adjacent towns and up and down Main Streets alongside horse-drawn carriages," the dissenting justices wrote. "But it blinks reality to conclude, as the Court does, that the same trolley-car statute confers eminent domain power on private entities aspiring to build — in 2022 — a massive $30 billion infrastructure project capable of supporting an elevated, 672-foot-long high-speed train as it traverses hundreds of miles and thousands of privately owned parcels between Houston and Dallas."

They also wrote that the majority opinion abandons longstanding principles to provide protection to property owners.

Texas Central celebrated the decision in a statement to the Dallas Business Journal while offering little detail about what the company plans to do next. "We are appreciative to the Texas Supreme Court for their time and consideration of this important issue as we continue work on this innovative high-speed passenger train rail," the company said.

An attorney representing Miles, the landowner who sued Texas Central, was not immediately available for comment.

Jennifer Stevens, a spokeswoman for the group ReRoute the Route, expressed disappointment in the court's ruling. ReRoute the Route is comprised of Texas businesses and civic organizations opposed to the train.

"While we are deeply disappointed with the ruling, Re-Route the Route will continue to educate federal, state, and local officials on this project’s many failings, including private property violations, severe public hazards, adverse minority community impact, weakened flood control, significant environmental damage, financial mismanagement and more, all of which render it utterly ineligible for any taxpayer support,” Stevens said.

Waller County Judge Trey Duhon, who is also president of Texans Against High-Speed Rail, said in statement said the group will continue to oppose the project. Despite the ruling, Duhon said he does not believe Texas Central has the ability to make the project happen.

"We cannot understand how the Supreme Court of Texas can designate a company in full meltdown and another company that was created and exists entirely on paper as railroads with eminent domain authority," Duhon said. "No matter the ruling, we were and remain prepared to continue the fight. We will continue to protect private property rights, tax dollars, and our natural resources. We strongly believe even with this ruling that Texas Central will not be able to progress, as it has no money, no permits, and no leadership, which has been the case for years."

This story originally appeared on the Dallas Business Journal.

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