Hundreds of attendees from the public and private sector heard from both freight and passenger executives and advocates Friday that roads alone will not solve our future transportation needs.
Featured speaker Peter Espy, Rail Division Director at the Texas Department of Transportation said that to meet mobility demands "transportation needs will have to be solved with innovative and increased infrastructure". Espy said that at present the rail division does not have any dedicated funding stream or source for either freight or passenger rail projects.
Tim Keith, President of Texas Central Railway, the private company building the bullet train project between Dallas and Houston said "Texans want to ride the bullet train. After ramp up we expect to have five million riders a year." This project would mark in the first time in a century that a private concern would be building and operating a passenger train service. Keith pointed out that the bullet train would not just be used by business travels to go between Houston and Dallas in 90 minutes but pointed out that nearly half of trips using all modes of transportation are made to visit friends and family, a large source of ridership.
Paul Treangen, CEO of TNW Corporation, a private operator of three Texas short line railroads said that public-private investments in short lines can help Texas grow. Other states have active economic development programs that work hand in hand with short line railroads that often are the "first and last mile" to many shippers that connect to railroads like BNSF and Union Pacific. Several of the short line operators on a panel discussion pointed out that the state of Texas does not have a program to work with the short line railroads in local economic development to create jobs and foster growth.
OminTrax's David Arganbright pointed out that Texas voters overwhelmingly approved a constitutional amendment in 2005 that created the Texas Rail Relocation and Improvement Fund. That vehicle has not been funded for the past decade by the state legislature. Arganbright said that Texas could use a robust rail program to help more freight off roads and onto rail lines in many cities around the state and help boost local economies.
Showing what a private concern can do, Vice President of Government Affairs for Brightline, the new high speed train service in Florida said that their operation is a joint transportation and real estate development project. Downtown parking lots in Miami are being transformed into a 21st century terminal with shops, office towers and nearby residences to spur economic development. Brightline will commence operations this year from downtown Miami to both Fort Lauderdale and West Palm Beach airports and is working on the longer extension to Orlando International airport to be a traffic reliever along the overloaded I-95 corridor.
Union Pacific Railroad's Dan Harbeke indicated that the rail company is thinking outside the box by expanding shipping services between Houston's port and their North Texas terminals. One commodity which will take numerous trucks off highways is the plastic pellet industry. A project called Dock to Dallas will aid shippers. Harbeke, who is Public Affairs Director for Union Pacific also indicated that the railroad does a large share of its business with Mexico transporting many commodities between the two countries.
Dallas Area Rapid Transit's Chad Edwards explained that the transit agency is now mapping out two large-scale projects to move thousands of riders in the future. Both the D2 downtown second light rail line and the North Dallas Cotton Belt crosstown rail line will be important additions to what is now billed as the largest light rail system in the country. Platform extensions at many DART light rail stations will allow the transit operator to add additional cars to trains. Many of its rush hour trains now operate at or beyond capacity.
Austin CAPmetro's Javier Auguello explained that there are several rail line plans on the drawing board right now awaiting approval. One light rail line would extend to Bergstrom airport and connect to downtown Austin. Many attendees at the Southwestern Rail Conference described Austin's current traffic flow as horrendous and inadequate with few options to widen roads or build new ones that would not adversely affect residential and businesses.