April 11, 2017 -TRA Newswire – AUSTIN – (Updated April 12)

The Texas House Transportation Committee held a public hearing Wednesday on HB3440, a bill to create a joint interim committee that would come up with a strategy for a high speed passenger rail network in the Lone Star state. Texas Rail Advocates Executive Director Chris Lippincott testified against the bill.

If passed by the House and Senate and signed by Governor Abbott, it would create a panel of three state Representatives and three Senators to evaluate what it would take to build a statewide high-speed rail initiative through a public-private partnership rather than through the Texas Department of Transportation, the planning agency for roads, rail, air and port movement of people and goods.

Lippincott delivered remarks before the House Transportation Committee and the following are his comments followed by the original bill filed March 8th by State Representative Byron Cook (R) Corsicana. Cook has been characterized as not supporting the Texas Central bullet train project, having previously filed House Bill 2179 and 2181 earlier this year. Those bills would put severe limitations on the Texas Central project, including the use of eminent domain which is allowed for railroads under state law.

Lippincott:

Good morning, for the record, my name is Chris Lippincott, I am the Executive Director of Texas Rail Advocates. TRA was formed in 2000 to educate and inform the public on the benefits of both freight and passenger rail service in Texas and the Southwest. We’re committed to advancing economic growth and enhancing our quality of life by supporting the development of rail service to its full potential as a carrier of freight and passengers across the state.

TRA is opposed to HB 3440 because we think it approaches the important issue of rail planning in a manner that is both too narrow and risks hamstringing the development of much-needed infrastructure for our state.

On its face, a legislative committee to study the development of high-speed rail service in the state sounds attractive. Our concern is that it would put the legislature in the driver’s seat of picking the routes and charting the course for intercity passenger rail without considering its impacts on the state’s broader transportation network.

Route and system planning are the job of the multi-billion dollar agency across the street, the Texas Department of Transportation.

We’re pleased to see that the legislature is taking notice that rail is an important component in a multi-faceted transportation system for Texas, but we believe that TxDOT’s Rail Division should be the agency that comes to the Legislature with a plan that articulates the need and options for intercity passenger rail. Then, you, the Legislature get the fun task of figuring out how to fund it. This could be through private investment, public-private partnerships or through public funding for projects of great necessity.

What we would like to see is a comprehensive freight and passenger rail initiative from TxDOT that would report back to the Legislature outlining how we are going to move both people and goods in the future by rail. A small slice of the rail pie that only looks at high-speed trains and doesn’t consider critical freight and commuter lines isn’t going to give our state the right field of vision for planning future projects.

What’s more, the current fiscal note, indicating no new impact for TxDOT, makes us wonder exactly what the committee would be doing. Ridership studies, engineering evaluations, and other research that would be needed for the committee to produce anything of value are largely outsourced to private sector experts and can cost millions of dollars.

The TxDOT Rail Division is the agency that must take the lead and bring those needs to the lawmakers – not the other way around. Our hope is that the committee would consider asking the department to develop a statewide plan, including an evaluation of funding options, which TxDOT could present in the next session. Further, we ask for you to provide them with the funds to do it right.

If I may take of my advocacy hat and offer some advice as a former staffer for both a state agency and for elected officials, the Texas Legislature does not want to get into the business of picking projects or selecting routes. An interim committee with a sunset date 20 months from nowand no new resources would be hard-pressed to return anything of value and risks offering rushed guidance that could stifle innovation or deter investment.

While the introduced draft of the bill does not imply the committee would have the authority to halt any rail projects under development in our state, it’s easy to see how adding a layer of oversight that doesn’t resemble any authority over any other mode of transportation could send the wrong message to businesses and government leaders trying to get us out of traffic.

And while an inadvertent short-term threat to high-speed train service worries us, layering in a new legislative planning function could create a long-term threat to public transit, freight rail and other infrastructure projects statewide.

Singling out high-speed rail projects including – but not limited to – the proposed Texas Central train between Houston and Dallas could also wave off private interest or outright kill projects that would serve Austin and San Antonio, the Valley, and eventually communities in West Texas and the Panhandle.

Discouraging high-speed passenger train service for our growing cities would mean that millions of taxpayer dollars already spent on route studies will have gone to waste.

Worse, if we start drawing arbitrary regulatory lines on projects because of their speed, it sends a chilling message to business and investment interests who want to bet on Texas.

Why wouldn’t they think that the proposal before you today to inject the Legislature into the planning process could apply to their industry, too?

And if the new administration in Washington makes good on its promise to spark economic activity by investing in infrastructure and engaging the private sector to deliver transportation projects, I would hope Texas would be in a place to access those opportunities as easily as other states without waiting on a report due in January of 2019.

Policies set forth decades ago have helped make possible more than 10,000 miles of freight track and more than 200 miles of passenger train infrastructure in Texas. These policies and our continued economic and population growth have now attracted new industries and opportunities to our state.

Finally, I would ask the members of this committee who proudly call themselves conservatives to review the policy paper “No Basis for Conservative Opposition to the Texas Central Rail Project” released last week by the Institute for Policy Innovation. IPI is an independent think tank based in the Metroplex. TRA has no relationship with IPI, but I think their report is worth a look.

I supplied the Committee clerk with copies of the brief article which makes it clear that following state and national property rights laws and allowing private businesses to take risks and invest in Texas to bring much-needed infrastructure to our state sends the right message about our commitment to free enterprise and innovation.

The Legislature should get behind a comprehensive rail plan for our state, but inserting legislators in an early, narrow portion of that planning process risks doing far more harm than good.

Here is the text of the original bill filed March 8th:

By: Cook   Filed March 8, 2017

H.B. No. 3440

A BILL TO BE ENTITLED AN ACT relating to the creation of a joint interim committee on high-speed rail development.

BE IT ENACTED BY THE LEGISLATURE OF THE STATE OF TEXAS:

SECTION 1. DEFINITIONS. In this Act: (1)”Committee” means the joint interim committee on high-speed rail development. (2)”Department” means the Texas Department of Transportation.

SECTION 2.  CREATION OF JOINT INTERIM COMMITTEE. (a) The joint interim committee on high-speed rail development is composed of: (1) three members of the house of representatives appointed by the speaker of the house of representatives; and (2) three senators appointed by the lieutenant governor. (b)The speaker of the house of representatives and the lieutenant governor shall make the appointments under Subsection (a) of this section not later than the 60th day after the effective date of this Act. (c)The lieutenant governor and speaker of the house of representatives shall each designate a co-chair from among the joint interim committee members. (d)The committee shall convene at the joint call of the co-chairs. (e)The committee has all other powers and duties provided to a special or select committee by the rules of the senate and house of representatives, by Subchapter B, Chapter 301, Government Code, and by policies of the senate and house committees on administration.

SECTION 3. INTERIM STUDY REGARDING HIGH-SPEED RAIL. The committee shall: (1)evaluate the feasibility of creating a statewide high-speed rail initiative through a public-private partnership; and (2)work with the department to develop a comprehensive statewide strategy for the development of high-speed rail in this state.

SECTION 4. REPORT. Not later than September 1, 2018, the committee shall provide to the legislature a written report: (1)addressing the feasibility of creating a statewide high-speed rail initiative through a public-private partnership; and (2)proposing a comprehensive statewide strategy for the high-speed rail development in this state.

SECTION 5. ABOLITION OF COMMITTEE. The joint interim committee created by this Act is abolished and this Act expires January 1, 2019.

SECTION 6. EFFECTIVE DATE. This Act takes effect immediately if it receives a vote of two-thirds of all the members elected to each house, as provided by Section 39, Article III, Texas Constitution. If this Act does not receive the vote necessary for immediate effect, this Act takes effect September 1, 2017.