Texas Central Rail Abuses Eminent Domain To Build Bullet Train


Kerri Toloczko Senior policy fellow at Institute for Liberty
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If the Texas bullet train were such a great idea, private equity and venture capitalists would be lining up with no need to exploit the federal taxpayer or appropriate private land through eminent domain.  

America has enjoyed a love affair with trains since the first stretch of the B&O opened in 1830. We romanticize trains as a flashback to the Gilded Age of the 1800s when homesteaders headed out west in droves to build homes, ranches and farms.

How ironic that in 2018, a proposed Texas bullet train threatens to reverse that legacy for many families in that state.

The privately owned Texas Central Rail (TCR) has been trying to garner enough funding and collect sufficient land to build a high-speed bullet train between Houston and Dallas. What, in theory, could be a reasonable idea has, in practice, alienated Texans not directly involved in the venture.

The executives of TCR argue this corridor is perfect for a bullet train as it is a flat land mass. Indeed, it is, but it is also home to thousands of hardworking Texans, cattle and crops. Many homesteaders have been there for hundreds of years, and not one of them wants to leave.  

The resistance of Texas landowners to sell beloved land — in whole or in part — has led TCR to threaten eminent domain. The aptly named “takings” clause of the Fifth Amendment limits the government from abusing private property rights without “just compensation.” Unfortunately for property owners, “just” compensation is all they get when the government appropriates their land.

For these Texans, it is not just land and homes that could be stolen from them, but entire livelihoods. Farmers and ranchers don’t leave suburban homes and drive to the office; they walk out the door to work acreage and livestock. Under eminent domain, property owners are only compensated for the value of a property as determined by those taking it. They are not compensated for loss of income.

Since the 2005 Kelo decision by the Supreme Court that somehow found it acceptable for government to appropriate land for private use, the race to destroy foundational property rights has escalated.

Carla Main, a scholar at the National Law Journal, nailed the problem in a 2005 article for RealClearPolitics when she noted, “(Kelo) is a testament to the expanding use of police power by the state for advancement of private interests that are often in cozy relationships with local governments.”

Before a fence is moved or field surrendered, TCR is already abusing property rights by carrying out its own form of illegal border crossing by trespassing to perform surveys.

Photographic evidence of this practice prompted Congressman Kevin Brady (R., Texas) to contact Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao and the Federal Railroad Administrator to investigate landowners’ complaints. This does not bode well for a company claiming it is “committed to working with every landowner in an open manner.”

But what if this taking by investors led to an economic boon for the people of Texas? Would that justify the “greater good” principle?

TCR has been in an unsuccessful four-year struggle for enough private financing to put the first shovel in the ground. It claims it is not seeking taxpayer funding but is now looking into federal loan guarantees after the Texas Legislature prohibited both itself and Texas agencies to fund the project.

So, if railway profits fall below expectations, all the working people of the United States are on the hook to bail it out. If the bullet train were such a great idea, private equity and venture capitalists would be lining up with no need to exploit the federal taxpayer.

In what can only be considered an act of desperation, TCR has now partnered with Amtrak, a notoriously unsuccessful rail system that already cannot operate without federal subsidies of at least $2 billion a year. As an additional irony, Amtrak was created by the federal government in the first place when private rail companies went bankrupt.  

As of this juncture, TCR has not released data about how much a bullet train ticket will cost. Estimates vary widely from $150 all the way to $360. Transportation policy experts at the libertarian Reason Foundation studied the project and concluded it would be in a $21.5 billion deficit position by its 40th year and estimated ridership numbers would bear one-fifth of TCR projections. 

After the Kelo case was decided against the homeowners, nine families lost homes to make way for a corporate parking lot. It was never built. The land is now occupied by feral cats. Homeowners lost everything for nothing.    

In Texas, land is not just dirt with prosperity growing out of it, but an integral part of the State’s ethos and values. It is not worth abandoning long-held and hard-fought land rights for a romantic, outdated relic doomed to send money flying out of taxpayer wallets faster than the bullet train accelerates.

Feral cats already have enough places to live in America’s second-largest state.  

A former resident of Texas, Kerri Toloczko is a Senior Policy Fellow at Institute for Liberty, a public policy organization dedicated to limited government, free enterprise and individual pursuit of the American dream.

The views and opinions expressed in this commentary are those of the author and do not reflect the official position of The Daily Caller.