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Lawmaker Revives Eminent Domain Question for Dallas-Houston Bullet Train Project

State Rep. Byron Cook asked Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton on Friday to rule on whether a private company developing a high-speed train project in the state has the power of eminent domain.

State Rep. Byron Cook, R-Corsicana, debates an amendment to SB19, an ethics bill on May 26, 2015.

Editor's Note: This story has been updated with a comment from Texas Central.

State Rep. Byron Cook asked Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton on Friday to rule on whether a private company developing a high-speed train project in the state has the power of eminent domain.

Texas Central Partners has been developing a privately funded bullet train intended to travel between Houston and Dallas in less than 90 minutes. While the project has garnered strong support in those cities, residents in the largely rural communities along the proposed route have voiced opposition. Cook's request asks Paxton to determine whether the company has the right, under state law, to enter private property to conduct land surveys "and ultimately take" private land.

"This issue is of great importance to Texans, especially rural Texans, whose property is already being entered upon in preparation for the initiation of eminent domain proceedings," Cook, a Republican from Corsicana, wrote in his request. "The issue upon which I request an opinion in one of statutory interpretation and the rules that govern your response are straightforward."

There are currently hundreds of private companies afforded eminent domain authority in Texas, including dozens of private railroad companies, according to a list maintained by the state comptroller's office.

State law asserts that high-speed rails have the same rights as other railroad companies — including the right of eminent domain. In 2015, several lawmakers unsuccessfully pursued measures to block Texas Central's multibillion-dollar project. One of those efforts, from state Sen. Lois Kolkhorst, R- Brenham, would have specifically stripped firms developing high speed rail projects from having eminent domain authority.

A statement from Texas Central said the company has built positive relationships with landowners on the rail's proposed route and planned only to use their "legal authority" of eminent domain as a last resort. 

"Texas' Constitution and legislative statutes have long granted eminent domain authority to railroads such as Texas Central, pipeline companies, electric power companies and other industries," the statement said. "All support the creation of infrastructure necessary to serve the public efficiently and enjoy a healthy economy. We believe it is clear that Texas law allows these proceedings for efforts that provide for a public good and a strong economy."

In his request for opinion, Cook said Texas Central should not qualify as a railroad company and therefore should not be awarded eminent domain.

"The decision of whether to grant High Speed Rail eminent domain power is one that should be made today by the legislature," Cook wrote. "It should not be labelled into a definition created over 100 years ago to deal with a very different type of railroad, in a very different time in our state's history." 

Disclosure: Texas Central Railway has been a financial supporter of The Texas Tribune. A complete list of Tribune donors and sponsors can be viewed here.

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