The Legislature’s all-out assault on passenger trains

Photo by Norihiro Kataoka

Passenger rail as a transportation option for Texans is usually ignored by the Legislature without a second thought. Not this session. More than two dozen bills filed would not only marginalize trains for Texas but could kill off both private and public projects.

Some legislation now winding its way through the Capitol would set a dangerous precedent if passed. Sen. Konni Burton’s Senate Bill 385 would require approval from all towns along a commuter rail line before trains could run. If one town in the middle objected, there would be no train service. Burton’s objection stems from federal and local funding that is being used for the Tarrant County TEXRail project without a public vote.

We don’t ask the same of new highways, airports, waterways or ports that all receive a share of state or federal funding to get approval from voters. It’s a pure discriminatory practice against passenger trains. A companion bill in the House from state Rep. Joe Pickett would do similar damage.

A flurry of bills filed by rural legislators would kill a privately financed high-speed rail line between Dallas and Houston. The developer, Texas Central, wants to run bullet trains that would cover the 240 miles between the mega-regions in just 90 minutes. Rural opponents claim that the 100-foot-wide right-of-way, about the width of a two-lane country road with shoulders, would decimate the countryside, and claim — with no positive proof — that the company might fail.

Texas Central responds that it is being environmentally sensitive and will bring 10,000 construction jobs and 1,000 permanent jobs to the state. Being a private entity, Texas Central would pay property taxes that would benefit each city and county along the route every year. A public project would not generate a penny of taxes for local coffers.

If enacted into law, these anti-train bills could also have a chilling effect on the soon to be released “record of decision” from the Federal Railroad Administration on the state’s Texas-Oklahoma Passenger Rail Study.  The study would indicate the best path for higher-speed passenger trains in the congested I-35 corridor. What better way to discourage public and private investment in Texas than to pass laws that turn thumbs down on trains?

We are approaching a crossroads in how the Texas Department of Transportation will be able to move the 1,000 new residents coming to our state each day, let alone handle the increased truck traffic to support our needs. That’s why the Texas Transportation Commission authorized a Rail Division in 2009 to look for ways to get Joe and Jane Public from Point A to Point B in our state.

Many Texans already realize that we can’t forever pour asphalt and concrete to widen and expand out our highway system. In many regions, traffic congestion is already reaching critical levels. Your legislators won’t tell you this, but the dirty little secret is that state and federal fuel taxes that consumers pay at the gas pump only cover about half the cost of building and maintaining roads. Sales and other taxes pick up the other half.

Look at Lewisville, where the widening of I-35E has removed a score of businesses from the property tax rolls and erased city sales tax receipts from popular restaurants demolished for the widening effort.

This is not endemic to Texas. The Trump administration wants to kill off Amtrak’s national network trains that serve rural America, citing that it is “inefficient.”

Many intermediate stops, like Mineola, Taylor and Alpine have few transportation options other than daily trains. Competitive TIGER (Transportation Investment Generating Economic Recovery) grants that benefit dozens of important transportation projects are also on the cutting block, as are transit programs for urban areas including Dallas.

It’s almost too late to start a statewide passenger rail network in Texas. Rail projects here have no dedicated source of revenue; no statewide projects are being considered by TxDOT.

Future generations may regret that our elected leaders only focused on more highway development and left passenger train service on a dead-end track.

Peter LeCody

President of Texas Rail Advocates