May 25, 2017 – TRA Opinion –

Last week was Infrastructure Week in Washington, DC. In the nation’s capital, online, and in cities across the country, advocates made the case for investing in the infrastructure that is the backbone of American prosperity and freedom. The message to government and business leaders in Texas was loud and clear: States should be open to innovation to deliver the trains, roads, and other vital infrastructure that will carry us through the 21st century.

The distressing partisan divisions in our current national politics have few metaphorical bridges, but literal bridges may bring us together. Supporting investment in transportation projects that create jobs and serve large and small businesses are among the only policy goals that make two Americas one.

The President and many of his sharpest critics agree that putting the country to work on road, rail, bridge, and waterway projects will create jobs and enhance the business climate. The shared interest in infrastructure in general and passenger train service specifically should bode well for Texas.

Texas is already home to the development of the nation’s first bullet train. The Texas Central rail project will connect Dallas and Houston with a 90-minute train ride using the safest transportation technology in the world. The project’s developers have not asked for subsidies or other public funding. Earlier this year, the venture was said to be on the new administration’s radar as emblematic of the type of project that could spur jobs and growth.

As the Texas Legislature wraps up its regular session, most of the efforts to stifle bullet train projects in the state seem to have failed. Maintaining an open and level playing field for passenger projects will serve Texas well and connect our state with the rest of the country.

To date, the state government has limited its involvement in the development of freight and passenger rail service to crafting strategic plans and supporting assessments like the ongoing Texas-Oklahoma Passenger Rail Study. It’s difficult to imagine that the Texas Department of Transportation suddenly rivaling Amtrak as a railroad operator, but its leadership and investments in planning are significant. The closer Texas gets to having routes identified and plans on the shelf, the better positioned we will be to take advantage of the federal government’s next push for infrastructure.

Using rail to move goods remains as important as ever for Texas. Texas rail movements in 2013 totaled 403.3 million tons, carried within almost 10 million carload units. It would’ve taken about 38.5 million trucks to manage this freight.

Railroads in Texas face severe capacity constraints. This puts pressure on shippers and forces even more trucks on to the state’s highways. Building out the state’s freight train network is capital intensive. More capacity is needed than railroads could afford to build by themselves. Public-private partnerships like those under discussion in Washington can fill the gap and benefit Texas businesses.

Without enhancing capacity for more freight rail traffic, adding passenger train service to existing lines cannot happen.

During Infrastructure Week, the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials held a briefing to discuss the importance of improving freight rail access to the nation’s ports. It’s clear that federal and state leaders most do more to support expanded freight rail capacity.

At this point, we do not know what will comprise the next big infrastructure package. Competing priorities like mass transit vs. highways vs. maintenance will need to be sorted out in Washington, and advocates for freight and passenger train service will be vocal in our advocacy.

Regardless of the final shape of the new administration’s infrastructure program, Texas needs to be ready. State and local transportation officials and planners must maintain the spirit of innovation and flexibility that have helped our state become leaders in multi-modal mobility. If we reject projects solely because their financing is non-traditional or because they aren’t “magic bullets” that solve every problem we face, we risk federal dollars – from Texas taxpayers – being spent in other states.

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. Let’s keep the doors to innovation wide open.

Peter LeCody, President / Texas Rail Advocates