Wednesday, 29 March 2017 15:41

Trump's infrastructure projects will be heavy on eminent domain

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trump eminentThere is one thing both parties can agree on. America’s infrastructure needs a rebuild. The administration is correct that our bridges, roads, and pubLic facilities have slowly degraded over time. The situation in some places is dire. Public works projects, unfortunately, can take a decade, or more, to plan and execute making discussions about President Donald Trump’s campaign promise to rebuild the physical elements of the country a matter for immediate attention.

To cite one example, urban mass transit projects like subways, light rail, and people movers, relieve congestion, protect the environment, and improve economies by, among other things, getting workers to jobs they might not otherwise be able to reach. They promote growth and revitalization, encourage new development, and create additional employment opportunities. They, also, can increase depressed property values and permit new, creative, private-public partnerships.

One of the biggest challenges in constructing, or rebuilding, transit infrastructures is land acquisition. This, often, necessitates use of eminent domain powers. During the campaign there was an attempt to portray this means of assembling parcels required for public and private projects that promote the common good as a rip off of honest little people. Donald Trump defended the practice and showed frustration that the device was mischaracterized. He was right to be offended because there comes a time when an overarching public interest demands that some private rights become subordinate to ones that serve the public at large.

The point Trump tried to make is that there are embedded in all laws pertaining to public takings a requirement that compensation be just. The procedures for this determination are fairly straightforward and derive from assessments of fair market value. To prevent overreaching there is recourse to courts of law where fair market assessments can be measured, independently, with adjustments directed, as necessary.

The due process clause of the Constitution permits reviewable fairness determinations whether or not eminent domain is for a private or public project. Wherever this device is used to promote it, there is consideration given to mass transit’s positive development around its hubs. The oldest examples most people are familiar with are the cities and towns that grew up around new railroad stops in the 19th century. There were abuses in those days, to be sure, before the law was more fully developed, but that potential is infinitely less today.

Local zoning laws are, also, an inherent part of a development and provide property owners, in cases of changes in statutes to accommodate projects, with yet another level of protection. The right of cities to control their own growth and economies, through revised general and specific plans, typically, requires hearings and the opportunity for direct local citizen involvement in projects that may involve federal, state, and local grants, matching funds, and other forms of financing, including bonds.

Americans tend to root for the underdog, maybe because winning the War of Independence was more of a long shot than a sure thing. While It may be amusing to see large-scale projects built around, for example, a recalcitrant owner’s single-family residence this obscures the wisdom of allowing the one to dictate to the whole since our system of government is based on the advancement of the common good. People elect representatives to advocate for them and inherent in that process is an acceptance that for every winning side there will be someone less happy than those who benefit more from any initiative than others. It’s called Democracy and when the public is the winner the results are compelling.

There is no large-scale project that doesn’t involve environmental impacts, defined most broadly to include those with social, financial, and other consequences. The advancement of worthwhile, even necessary, projects that promote progress requires what is known as a balancing test that weighs individual rights against those of society generally. Donald Trump, more than most people, understands this concept. Part of selling the infrastructure projects he has promised, therefore, will include educating the public about eminent domain. This will advance his goal of rebuilding the country’s infrastructure.


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