The use of Eminent Domain to advance infrastructure is an age old practice. In this blog, we talk about tunnels; which are, and have been, an integral part of transportation progress for centuries.
Now there is talk of a high-speed rail that will go through a tunnel, similar to the Chunnel between the UK and France, that would take New Yorkers to Chicago in under five hours. Supporters of the plan say it will cost the federal government virtually nothing, experts say the deregulation will be handouts for Big Business.
Many people (including us) are asking about the costs to taxpayers. ‘Cause hey, we live here and we pay taxes. According to President Trump’s chief economic adviser, Gary Cohn, no taxpayer/government funding is needed because it will be funded by the private sector–with companies that own the rights-of-way underground. According to Newsday, however, Cohn’s casual talk of “access and rights-of-way” and “solvable issues” masks a far-more-complicated strategy that involves more than just digging.
Will eminent domain work in this situation? Many say no, commenting that it is an overreach that benefits private corporations at the expense of the public. As we all know, though, eminent domain has been used to benefit private development in the past (see United States Supreme Court’s decision in Kelo v. City of New London 545 U.S. 469 (2005)). In addition, the use of eminent domain usually comes at a substantial cost to the taxpayers, as the government is obligated to pay just compensation to the owners of seized property; not to mention costs and fees for legal representation and appraisal services to determine the value of property rights deep under the ground. Let’s face it. Tunneling 70 feet down is probably not that easy.
Here is an expert that agrees. “You’ve got to get 70 feet underground through vertical access tunnels,” said C. William Ibbs, head of the Construction Management program at University of California, Berkeley. “The question is where are you going to put the ports to get the tunneling machine and other utilities underground. Where you locate the ports may have to be on private land, you’re going to have to get owner permission. If it’s on government land, you’re going to have to apply for permits. Access is always a problem during tunneling work.”
High-speed rail, which has been available for many years in Europe and Asia, was built at a relatively low cost. It was also discussed by the Obama administration, although they did not resort to the use of eminent domain. Without it, there is little federal officials can do.