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High-Speed Rail Project Awaits Word From Texas Supreme Court in Eminent Domain Case

The battle over whether the high-speed rail project between Dallas and Houston, proposed by Texas Central, will have the power of eminent domain continues. The case has been ongoing since 2017.

Eminent domain is the concept that the government has the right to take property for public use as long as it provides just compensation.

Texas Central Railroad prevailed on the issue at the 13th Texas Court of Appeals, which ruled last May that the project can exercise the power of eminent domain because it qualifies as a railroad under Texas law.

In December, James Miles, a landowner in Leon County whose land would be bisected by the planned 240-mile rail project, filed his brief on the merits of the case as requested by the Supreme Court of Texas (SCOTX). 

Miles asked the Texas Supreme Court to review a lower court ruling in his case because he believes Texas Central Railroad and its affiliates do not have the eminent domain authority to enter his property and survey it.  

Texas Central filed its response at the end of December, arguing that the Court of Appeals made the right decision in declaring that Texas Central qualifies as a railroad company and as an interurban electric railway company under the Texas Transportation Code, and thus has eminent-domain authority. It also pointed out that Miles could only prevail at SCOTX if both of those bases for eminent-domain power are overturned.  

Miles argues that eminent domain is such a powerful authority that it must be “strictly construed in favor of the landowner,” and require “strict compliance with all statutory requirements.” Miles claims that Texas Central does not qualify because it is not yet an operating railroad. 

SNCF America, an indirect U.S. subsidiary of Société Nationale SNCF SA (“SNCF”), the French national railway, filed an amicus curiae or “friend of the court” brief in support of landowners.  

“SNCF America filed an amicus curiae brief in this very important case because the company believes high speed rail has great potential in the United States. But Texas Central Partners’ high speed rail ‘project’ is, to borrow a Texas phrase, all hat and no cattle,” attorney Christopher Odell wrote in reply to an inquiry by The Texan

“For years, Texas Central Partners claimed that it would build its project using only private funding, though no high speed rail project anywhere in the world has been built solely with private funds. As SNCF America knows, and as Texas Central Partners has now begun to admit, the infrastructure costs are simply too high for a fully private venture to profitably build and operate such a project,” he continued.

Texas Central has made clear for the last two years that it will explore all forms of funding available to capital projects including existing federal loan programs like the Railroad Rehabilitation and Improvement Financing (RRIF) Program and the Transportation Infrastructure Finance and Innovation Act (TIFIA), its spokesperson said last spring

SNCF America does not currently operate any rail lines in the USA, but “it looks forward to doing so in the future,” Odell wrote.

The company submitted requests for proposals to the Federal Railroad Administration for high-speed rail projects in 2008 and 2016.

SNCF has been critical of the Texas Central proposal in the past and submitted comments to the Federal Railroad Administration raising concerns about the project before the final environmental impact statement was released last fall.  

Miles now waits to see if SCOTX will grant his petition and set the case for oral argument, attorney for Miles, Patrick McShan told The Texan.

Texas Central Railroad opted not to provide a comment on this story.

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