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Rail grants seen bypassing Texas

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The federal government is about to hand out a river of cash to states willing to build a network of bullet trains, as the Obama administration and Democrats in Congress seek to slowly ease the country's dependence on automobiles and airplanes to make short trips between its biggest cities, the Dallas Morning News reports. It's the nation's first major investment in true high-speed rail, and among its most significant pushes to locate trains of any kind far from the East Coast.

But while the federal
grants won’t be announced until later this month, or early February, word
already has emerged that Texas’ chances of snagging much of what it has
requested are slim. This month, at a speech in Austin, a top federal rail
administrator charged with managing the distribution of the new grants said
Texas’ application lacks the kind of political support from the governor and
the Legislature that would help it compete against other states where that
support has been stronger.

"There has been no central
vision, no common vision for rail in Texas," said Karen Rae, deputy
commissioner for the Federal Railroad Administration. "And that kind of
vision, that kind of support from the political leadership, is critical to
success in our program."

Gov. Rick Perry’s
spokeswoman said he thinks the department has done the right thing: apply for
the planning funds so that Texas can determine whether high-speed rail is
feasible.

"This study will tell
us the costs, benefits, use, etc. of HSR in the state – all of which are
necessary before even deciding to pursue public or private investment in
HSR," spokeswoman Allison Castle said in an e-mail.

The first $8 billion of
what could be several times that much money over the next five years is
expected to be awarded in the next several weeks. And Texas, with its flat
landscape and bulging urban populations just far enough away from each other to
make high-speed rail attractive, is home to two of the eight rail corridors the
U.S. government has identified as likely places to invest.

Texas has requested $1.8
billion in the current round of funding, most of it to fast-track a bullet
train proposal – dubbed the Texas T-Bone – that would run trains at 220 mph
from Fort Worth to San Antonio, and from Temple to Houston.

Rae said other states have
done much more than Texas has to enhance their funding requests.

"Immediately after we
announced this [funding] program, the state of Florida called a special session
of its Legislature – and they set about addressing their laws specifically so
as to make their application as strong as possible. In the Midwest, eight
governors and the mayor of Chicago have formed a formal compact to work
together to bring high-speed rail."

Efforts in California to
string high-speed trains from San Francisco to San Diego are also much further
along than efforts in Texas, despite that state’s huge budget problems and
other financial woes. Not long after Texans approved $5 billion in bonds for
highways in 2007, voters in California approved twice that much to advance
high-speed rail.

Texas House Transportation
Committee Chairman Joe Pickett, D-El Paso, said in an interview in Austin that
it’s no secret that Texas is unlikely to secure the rail money it wants from
the federal government this time around. The best it can hope, he said, is that
recent steps by the legislature and by the Transportation Department will help
make it more competitive when the second round of funding comes along.

Still, those moves have
been significant – even if Texas misses out on the flurry of federal rail
grants, said Peter LeCody of Dallas, chairman of Texas Rail Advocates. Texas
Rail Advocates will host a southwest regional conference on rail beginning Jan.
28, when Rae will address Texans again about the federal interest in bullet
trains.

In the past 12 months,
state agencies and the Legislature have raised rail’s profile significantly in
Texas, where for decades nearly the sole focus of the Texas Department of
Transportation has been on building one of the nation’s biggest, and for years
most admired, networks of highways and bridges. Last year, the Transportation
Department created a new rail division, hiring a longtime rail executive who
says his mission is to build a network of fast passenger trains in Texas to
ease highway congestion on major corridors like Interstate 35.

"Folks, we have a
problem," Bill Glavin, the new rail division director, said in a speech in
Austin earlier this month, noting that relentless efforts to add more and
bigger highways in Texas haven’t avoided near gridlock on its roads. "And,
as they say, it’s insanity to keep doing things the same old way and to expect
different results. It is well past time that we add components to our
transportation network that will include freight and passenger rail.

"What’s the solution?
Rail. The big question is funding," he said.

Of course, funding is not
just a big question – it may be the only question, especially in a state where
its constitution forbids spending any gas taxes on rail.

A proposal put forward late
last year by one of the world’s leading passenger rail firms would string
trains between Fort Worth and San Antonio – though not, initially, to Houston.
But it would do so at an eye-popping cost of $13 billion. That’s too much for
even the world’s biggest private companies to handle without significant
government contributions, though rail advocates note that once built, many of
the world’s most advanced passenger rail lines operate without taxpayer
subsidies.

Still, LeCody said he’s more
optimistic about rail in Texas than he has ever been. Even if the grandest
plans remain on the drawing board for years, other, smaller improvements are
almost certain to happen more quickly.

Indeed, of the $1.8 billion
Texas has requested in the current round of funding, about $400 million of it
is for far smaller but still potentially significant improvements. Jennifer
Moczygemba, who helped prepare the applications for the state transportation
department, said most of those improvements would help improve freight rail in
Texas, but in ways that will also speed up existing Amtrak service in the
state, which shares rail lines with the private carriers. For instance, $3
million would help improve signals along a rail line from Fort Worth to Oklahoma,
allowing Amtrak service to maintain speeds of 79 mph, rather than having to
slow down in places to 49 mph.

Texas is also seeking about
$30 million to make improvements at Tower 55 in Fort Worth, where multiple rail
lines converge, slowing down trains each day. If awarded, the money would speed
up Trinity Railway Express commuter trips through the area, she said.

Glavin, whose department
has 33 employees, said even small steps will be important as Texas begins
seeing rail as a vital part of its transportation planning.

"The mission is
evolving as we go forward," he said of the new rail division. "What
is important is that TxDOT has made the commitment that there simply has to be
a viable alternative to building out the roads as we have always done."

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