November 29, 2023 - TRA Newswire (Washington) -

Austin Mayor Kirk Watson, invited today to testify before the U.S. House Subcommittee on Railroads, Pipelines and Hazardous Materials, said he is "eager to do anything I can to support intercity passenger rail in Texas."

The committee is chaired by Troy Nels (R) - Texas, who said he is on the record for supporting high-speed rail. Chairman Nels said that the hearing was to hear how intercity passenger rail can be "safe, efficient, cost effective and that meets the demands of consumers. Investments and innovation in our rail infrastructure are essential to building a robust and competitive American transportation system. We must make sure that federal policies and spending are balanced with realistic consumer demand," said Nels.

In his testimony the mayor said "Highways and airports connecting Texas cities simply can't keep up with the demands of our states economy and the mobility needs of its people", according to Watson. "I'm glad that federal agencies, Amtrak, TxDOT and Texas cities and counties are looking to improve intercity passenger rail service in Texas, and more specifically what we call the Texas Triangle." 

Watson said that 70% of Texans live within the Texas Triangle (DFW-Austin-San Antonio-Houston metro areas), home to some 21 million people. "I would argue that the Texas Triangle is the lowest hanging fruit in the nation for improving intercity passenger rail service." He said that projections show robust ridership with a relatively low capital investment because of the population, the density of that population, the economy and the demographics. 

"The Dallas-Austin-San Antonio corridor has all of the attributes you would expect", according to Watson. "Growth, severe highway congestion, travel distances too short to fly and an all to often unpleasantly long drive" 

Mayor's Watson's testimony can be heard here (from 54:00 to 59:15 minutes into the hearing). 

The mayor said that the tiny Amtrak Austin station served some 100,000 residents when it was built in 1947. Now Austin's population is ten times that amount today with the Austin metro area now with 2.4 million citizens. "We're leading the nation in growth and we have to improve multimodal mobility, the bedrock of the states' thriving economy."

The mayor pointed out that some 20,000 of the region's workforce in Bexar county travels north toward Austin daily with some 28,000 workers traveling south each day from Travis County. 

Discussing how intercity passenger rail would benefit cities and towns outside of the largest cities, Watson pointed to the Waco-Killeen region along the I-35 corridor with some 800,000 residents, saddled with limited transportation options. 

Development of intercity passenger rail will "require cooperation and financial support at all levels of government, federal, state and local and I am pleased that TxDOT and other Texas leaders are seizing that opportunity," according to Watson.  "I fully support TxDOT's application for the (FRA) Corridor Identification and Development Plan". Last fall TxDOT Executive Director Marc Williams filed for three Federal Railroad Administration corridor planning grant applications, all for the Texas Triangle. The grants, to be announced in the coming months, are part of the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law passed by Congress in 2021. 

Committee Chair Nels excoriated the California High Speed Rail project, which is way behind schedule and over budget. The Los Angeles to San Francisco rail project, once estimated to cost $33 billion has ballooned to over $128 billion with poor planning and government incompetence, according to Nels. "The project has been plagued by not accounting for actual costs, obtaining land to build the track, environmental concerns, red tape and whether low consumer demand will require permanent and costly government subsidies to operate the line." 

Other witnesses today at the intercity passenger rail hearing:

Photo credit: T&I committee video feed

Amtrak Austin station, Texas Rail Advocates