March 8, 2007
This week, I filed Senate Bill 1384. The bill would protect property owners whose land is taken through eminent domain for toll roads. In 2005, the Legislature created what’s known as a “quick-take” condemnation process. It lets the state take over property and start building toll roads there even as TXDOT is haggling with property owners over what it will pay them.If you’re a homeowner, current law gives you just 90 days from the day that TXDOT files eminent domain papers to be out of your house before the road builders get it. If you’re a farmer, rancher or business owner, the clock can start even earlier.SB 1384 simply gives homeowners, farmers, ranchers, and business owners at least a year to continue living or working on their land before anyone can take it. TXDOT has continually warned about inflation and the burden it spreads among taxpayers and drivers. It’s a valid point – costs of road-related materials, such as concrete and steel, have risen to staggering heights in recent years. But such concerns cannot override the need to have a home, earn a living, or make plans for the future.Furthermore, TXDOT must do a good job ensuring that people receive fair compensation for everything that a toll road takes from them. An Austin American-Statesman story from 2005 found that 44 percent of landowners along the State Highway 130 route challenged TXDOT’s assessments of their property. People who hired lawyers and fought TXDOT ended up receiving 71 percent more money than owners of comparable land who just accepted what they were offered. TXDOT might not have been intentionally low-balling property owners. But these kinds of numbers are an example of what has made Texans so distrustful of their Transportation Department in recent years. And the “quick-take” law wasn’t even in place when these condemnations took place.I don’t know why toll roads require this aggressive tool and untolled highways don’t. I do know that if TXDOT is going to take Texans’ property, it needs to do a better job of making sure those people are protected.