A key decision in a lawsuit affecting plans for a high-speed rail line connecting Houston to Dallas was handed down May 7 when the Texas 13th Court of Appeals determined Texas Central, the company planning the rail line, to be a legally recognized as a railroad company in the state of Texas.

Plaintiffs in the case—James Miles v. Texas Central—said they plan to appeal it to the Texas Supreme Court.

The decision, provided it is not reversed by the Supreme Court, allows Texas Central to use eminent domain to obtain land where the line will run. Some landowners along the proposed route—including plaintiff James Miles, who lives in Leon County—have refused to sell their land to Texas Central, making the future of the rail uncertain if the company is not able to use eminent domain.

Eminent domain involves the taking of private property for public use, even against the will of the owner. Only particular entities are allowed to use it under state law, including railroad companies. Officials with Texas Central have previously said they only intend to use eminent domain as "a last resort" and would compensate landowners fairly.

Miles, who won his case at trial court in 2019, argued Texas Central is not operating a railroad because it does not own any trains and has not constructed any tracks, among other issues. In her ruling, appeals court Judge Nora Longoria reversed the trial court decision.

Longoria wrote her decision was based on the language of the Texas Transportation Code and the intention of the state lawmakers who wrote it, particularly whether the word “operating” can be read as “will operate in the future.”

“Miles’s interpretation would have this Court ignore the legislature’s instruction ... by limiting the word ‘operating’ to solely the present tense. We decline to do so,” Longoria wrote.

Texas Central CEO Carlos Aguilar lauded the decision.

“This decision is rooted in state law that allows survey access and use of eminent domain by railroads, pipelines, electrical lines and other industries that provide for the public good and a strong economy,” he said in a statement. “This decision confirms our status as an operating railroad and allows us to continue moving forward with our permitting process and all of our other design, engineering and land acquisition efforts.”

In a statement, Miles’ attorney Blake Beckham said the ruling creates a “wild, wild west” of eminent domain authority in Texas. Miles said he will appeal the case to the Texas Supreme Court.

This Court of Appeals ruling has only strengthened our resolve to keep fighting to protect not only our property but the private property rights of all Texans,” Miles and Beckham said in a statement.

Initial hopes among Texas Central leadership were to break ground on the project in 2020 and have it up and running in five to six years. The company laid off 28 employees in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic, but officials said they are still working through the approval process with the Federal Railroad Administration.

In the wake of the coronavirus, some state and federal lawmakers have lobbied federal transportation officials to suspend the review process for the project. Texas Central officials estimate the project will cost $12 billion, money they said will be raised through private investment. Opponents said that funding is not likely to be raised while the pandemic is ongoing.

One elected official involved in those efforts is U.S. Congressman Kevin Brady, who represents the 8th Congressional District of Texas. Brady said he continues to support the Miles family and expects a reversal of the ruling in the Texas Supreme Court.

“Every Texan who values property rights should be disappointed the Corpus Christi Court of Appeals decided to allow Texas Central to seize property without the consent of Texas property owners," Brady said.