Houston Metro: Trains, Buses, and…Eminent Domain?

As if the story of Houston’s one-year-old light rail system couldn’t get any worse, the Houston Business Journal reports that Metro wants to get in the eminent domain business:

“Under a new Metro real estate initiative, owners of land within a 1,500-foot radius of a light rail station could stand a higher chance of having their property condemned by the transit agency. . . . . Now, Metro is taking a more active role in stimulating real estate development along rail corridors (see related story). As a result, development activity within the 1,500-foot limit could extend the transit agency’s influence far beyond the actual tracks. Metro’s eminent domain reach covers a span of five football fields in any direction. The surroundings of a single urban rail station can encompass several square blocks occupied by scores of buildings. The potential for more property condemnations not directly related to rail has some local property rights groups concerned. While Metro prepares to implement the plan with an inaugural project in the Texas Medical Center, opponents of the new policy argue that properties blocks away from the rail stations could be potential targets of speculative real estate deals transacted by transit officials. . . . . ‘Philosophically, I’d have a little bit of a hard time condemning somebody’s property to put it in some private developer’s hands,’ [Metro’s real estate portfolio manager Todd] Mason says. ‘I don’t have any problem condemning a property if we need it for Metro operations.’ But Mason says he can imagine an exception to the rule, for instance, if the owner of a small parcel of land was holding up a larger development. ‘I could conceive that that would happen, but we’re really going to try and avoid that type of situation,’ Mason says. ‘It’s not my intention to condemn somebody for development purposes.'”

How many times have we heard this before in public policy? Over time, exceptions make a mockery of the rule, despite the best of original intentions. And as a fairly typical dysfunctional urban transit agency, don’t they have bigger fish to fry, such as keeping the trains and buses moving? Journal writer Bill Schadewald is rightly skeptical:

“Why would a narrow rail station bisected by pair of tracks a few feet apart require a whopping 1,500 feet of easement on either side? Five separate stops along a single year-old stretch of light rail in the central core alone effectively give Metro power of eminent domain over almost 50 percent of all downtown property. . . . . As an inner-city property owner, I already feel edgy. And as a member of the Houston business media for more than 30 years, I have a hard time going along with this urban renewal program disguised as transit planning.”

Read the whole thing.