Domain services

Texas Supreme Court upholds Texas Central’s right to eminent domain power

Editor’s note: This story has been updated with commentary from Texas Central

The Texas Supreme Court issued a 5-3 decision upholding Texas Central’s right to use eminent domain to build its proposed high-speed railroad between Houston and Dallas on June 24.

Judge Debra Lehrmann delivered the court address majority opinion with Chief Justice Nathan Hecht, Justice Brett Busby, Justice Jeff Boyd and Justice Evan Young. Judge Rebeca Huddle delivered the dissenting opinion with Judge Jimmy Blacklock and Judge John Devine. Judge Jane Bland did not participate.

Katharine Barnes, listed as Texas Central’s legal counsel and director of right of way on LinkedIn, said in an email to Community Impact Journal that the company was “grateful” for the court’s decision.

“We are grateful to the Texas Supreme Court for its time on this important issue as we continue to work on this high-speed passenger train,” Barnes wrote.

Peter LeCody, president of the Dallas-based nonprofit Texas Railroad Defenders– who filed an amicus brief in support of Texas Central – said the decision opened the doors to new railroads wanting to lay track in Texas, but there were still uncertainties about the project.

“It wasn’t about whether high-speed rail is good or bad for Texas; that’s if Texas Central had the power to buy a strip of land for the rail,” LeCody said. “[However], with the pandemic in place for two years and six months of Supreme Court tinkering, where does that leave Central Texas? That’s the question.

The project is intended to be a high-speed railroad between Houston and Dallas, according to the company website. The project would use a system inspired by Japanese Shinkansen bullet trains to transport passengers between the two cities in 90 minutes.

The railroad faced questions about its viability, with Texas Central failing to obtain a federal permit to begin construction and its CEO Carlos Aguilar resigning on June 13. In the court case, a group of county judges whose counties are in the train’s path filed an amicus brief claiming the company owed thousands of dollars in unpaid property taxes in March.

In the majority view, Lehrmann wrote that the court was not ruling on Texas Central’s likelihood of success, but rather on eminent domain status – the power to seize private property for public projects, which may be granted to private companies by the state.

“The case concerns the interpretation of eminent domain laws; he is not asking us to say whether high-speed rail between Houston and Dallas is a good idea or whether the advantages of the proposed rail service outweigh its disadvantages,” Lehrmann wrote.

According to the majority opinion, Texas Central is considered an intercity electric railroad under the Texas transportation code and therefore has the power of eminent domain.

The Supreme Court decision stemmed from a case filed in Leon County, where landowner Jim Miles alleged the railroad lacked the authority to use eminent domain. The lawsuit questioned Texas Central’s status as a railroad, alleging that it had no trains operating anywhere.

The case went to the 13th District Court of Appeals before being appealed to the Supreme Court in 2021. The court heard oral argument on January 11.

In the dissenting opinionHuddle wrote that the law referring to “intercity electric railways” meant the construction of wagon-scale railways for use on city streets.

“But this [blinkers] reality to conclude, as the Court does, that the same streetcar law grants eminent domain power to private entities aspiring to build – in 2022 – a massive $30 billion infrastructure project capable of supporting a train elevated high-speed 672-foot-long train as it travels hundreds of miles and thousands of private packages between Houston and Dallas,” Huddle wrote.

Both Lehrmann and Huddle noted that it is the responsibility of the state legislature to provide options for landowners in Miles’ situation, although Huddle noted that the court’s decision placed responsibility on the legislature.

Texans against the bullet traina nonprofit organization opposed to the project, shared a statement on Facebook from Miles, who said he was “disappointed” by the court’s decision.

“Despite our disappointment, let’s be clear that this decision does not breathe life into Texas Central or its project,” Miles said. “If Texas Central thinks otherwise and decides to continue this charade, we will be there to challenge them every step of the way before they set foot on our property.”