Justices Huddle, Devine, and Blacklock dissented from the majority opinion. Justice Jane Bland did not participate in the ruling.
The case was brought by James Miles, who owns 600 acres of land along the proposed route. It turned on whether Texas Central qualified for eminent domain authority as an “interurban electric railway” under Texas Transportation Code Chapter 131, upholding the 13th Court of Appeals ruling in 2020.
In an opinion authored by Justice Debra Lehrmann, the court acknowledged that eminent domain authority is an “extraordinary intrusion on private property rights.” It also stated that its opinion was not a reflection on whether a high-speed rail between Dallas and Houston was “a good idea.”
However, it found that in reading the plain language of the interurban electric railway statute, Texas Central qualifies.
In response to the landowners’ and dissenting opinion’s argument that the high-speed railway doesn’t fit the historical context of the statute, which was aimed at trains that “operate in a manner like a single-car trolley lumbering down Main Street,” the majority said that the court has “long interpreted statutes, including eminent domain statutes, to embrace later-developed technologies when the statutory text allows.”
Miles also argued that Texas Central did not qualify because it lacked objective evidence that the project has a “reasonable probability of success,” pointing to financing difficulties and lack of investment. The justices disagreed that Texas Central was required to prove such.
Even though the 13th Court of Appeals found that Texas Central also qualified as a railroad under Chapter 112 of the Texas Transportation Code, the Texas Supreme Court did not rule on that issue, having found that eminent domain authority exists under Chapter 131.
In her dissent, Huddle emphasized that the Texas Supreme Court has ascribed private property rights a “unique status” and provided them with “utmost protection.” In instances of doubt, she added, statutes are interpreted “in favor of the landowner.”
In this case, she criticized the majority for “abandoning these long standing principles” and interpreting the interurban electric railway statute out of context.
Huddle concluded by pointing to the ramifications of the majority’s ruling, writing, “[T]oday’s decision places Miles and hundreds of other Texas landowners at Texas Central’s mercy. Texas Central may take their land and, if the project succeeds, bisect each parcel with an enormous infrastructure project on which a train blazes past at 200 miles per hour every thirty minutes. Or it could begin construction and abandon the project, unfinished, leaving behind half-built viaducts leading nowhere. Or it may take their land and do nothing for a decade, triggering a feeble repurchase ‘remedy’ for landowners.”
“We are very disappointed by today’s ruling from the Texas Supreme Court. It’s hard to comprehend how the Court could grant eminent domain authority to a company that has no money, no approval to construct, no approval to operate, no CEO, no board of directors, and that is now being managed by a distressed asset consultant,” the Miles family said in a press statement.
A spokesperson for ReRoute the Route, Jennifer Stevens, also expressed her disappointment in the court’s decision, adding, “Since the beginning, the proposed Texas high-speed rail project has been a failure, being promoted to the public as a private venture, yet seeking a $30 billion taxpayer funded federal bailout to salvage its insolvent proposal.” ReRoute the Route advocates moving the high-speed rail to a “safer, simpler, and more sensible area.”
The future of Texas Central has been questioned recently given the departure of former president and CEO Carlos Aguilar and the resignation of the executive leadership team. However, Texas Central’s lawyers claim it “remains open for business.”
The attorneys for Texas Central did not respond to a request for comment before the time of publication.
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Kim Roberts is a regional reporter for the Texan in the DFW metroplex area where she has lived for over twenty years. She has a Juris Doctor from Baylor University Law School and a Bachelor's in government from Angelo State University. In her free time, Kim home schools her daughter and coaches high school extemporaneous speaking and apologetics. She has been happily married to her husband for 23 years, has three wonderful children, and two dogs.