Highway AND Railways: Let the voters decide
Without any fanfare, the Federal Railroad Administration released the Texas-Oklahoma Passenger Rail Study (TOPRS), which was five years in the making, last November.
Since then, crickets.
The service level study paints a broad brushstroke showing what kind of trains could operate along the corridor. The study, paid for with federal funds, showed that running intercity passenger trains from Oklahoma through Texas to the Rio Grande Valley and beyond is not only feasible but needed to meet the demand of the millions of new Texans we will welcome to our state in the coming years.
The Texas Transportation Commission, Texas Department of Transportation and our legislators who sit on the House and Senate Transportation committees have been strangely silent on the TOPRS plan for the 850-mile-long corridor. Other than the spartan page on the TxDOT website and the Federal Railroad Administration post, there has been no effort to move this to a project level status, where the nuts and bolts of developing a passenger rail plan along the I-35 corridor would occur.
The addition of passenger rail service is one of the few options planners have left to ease future traffic congestion on I-35 as the state adds more than 1,000 new residents every day.
The state demographer points out that 86 percent of Texans now live along or east of the I-35 corridor. By doing the same thing over and over — building highways — can we expect any future outcome other than more road congestion?
Instead of adding one new lane to I-35 between Austin and San Antonio, you could spend close to the same amount to get fast, frequent, modern trains carrying the same number of passengers per hour as a traffic-clogged lane. Or you could do what some planners are recommending and either build another freeway through Central Texas or even double deck I-35. Neither of those ideas appeal to a lot of residents.
A University of Texas transportation study for the TxDOT I-35 Corridor Advisory Citizens Committee showed that most Texans want intercity train service between our metropolitan areas and are willing to pay for it through transportation funding.
Right now, less than 1 percent of TxDOT’s $26 billion budget for 2018-2019 is marked for public transit across the entire state and no money is allocated for intercity passenger rail.
Legislators will wring their hands, crying “no money is available,” when there is an easy fix. Craft and let voters decide, through a constitutional amendment, to designate 5 percent of transportation funding for rail and transit development. That would leave the remaining 95 percent for highways.
There is federal funding through the FAST Act and other programs that can be leveraged for passenger rail if Texas can step up and match it. Other conservative states, like Oklahoma and Utah, dedicate funding for passenger rail and transit and are seeing the benefits of transportation choices for their citizens. Texas has been shut out.
Don’t let the TOPRS study sit on a TxDOT shelf gathering dust. Let’s use it as the template for improving transportation choices in Texas.
In the upcoming legislative session, our lawmakers should let the public weigh in on how to keep Texas moving in the future.
Peter LeCody has been a financial supporter of The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan news organization that is funded in part by donations from members, foundations and corporate sponsors. Financial supporters play no role in the Tribune's journalism. Find a complete list of them here.