May 1, 2024 - TRA Newswire -

Nearly 300 attendees at last month's Southwestern Rail Conference in the Dallas area heard presenter after presenter lay out the case for more passenger rail service in the Lone Star state.

From Amtrak's high-speed guru Andy Byford on developing the Dallas-Houston bullet train, to Travis County Judge Andy Brown starting a coalition for regional rail between Austin and San Antonio and Knox Ross, Chairman of the Southern Rail Commission describing multiple passenger rail projects on the drawing board, there is certainly something going on in Texas. 

While the conversation on passenger rail is stronger than ever and with federal funding flowing in for multiple Corridor Identification planning grants, the state legislature and the Commissioners who serve on the Texas Transportation Commission still need to be convinced that the state needs more than just roads for the future. 

At present there is no state funding mechanism in place for a 20% Texas match to an 80% share of available federal funds for rail projects in the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law. That means the state DOT has to beg the legislature each session to fund specific conventional rail projects and that's dependent on a surplus in the state budget. 

The Rail Relocation and Improvement Fund, passed by Texas voters in a constitutional amendment over a decade ago, remains unfunded. High-speed rail funding from the state of Texas will be even harder to obtain. The legislature, bending to the whims of short-sighted rural politicians, passed a bill that forbids the state of Texas from investing the first dollar in any high-speed rail project. That means the private sector, along with any federal grants and loans, will have to sew together a funding package. 

The Texas State Demographer has said that with nearly two-thirds of the population residing on or east of the I-35 corridor to the Louisiana state line, this is where the future is for economic growth. Because of the business-friendly attitude, Texas has seen a dramatic increase in population that shows no signs of weakening, especially in the "Texas Triangle" of Dallas-Fort Worth/ Austin/San Antonio and Houston. 

As Andy Byford said at the rail conference, "the population will be growing exponentially, and we need to take action now in order to expand the rail offering. Quite simply, if we do nothing, the existing roads which are already clogged, and we heard about the accident record, the roads will become intolerably clogged." Byford went on to say "The only option if you don't expand rail service will be to keep widening roads and I don't think anyone here would advocate that as a good idea." 

Representative Terry Canales, Chairman of the Texas House Transportation Committee, said passenger and freight rail must be considered in the transportation mix. In a video prepared for the Southwestern Rail Conference Canales said that in the past session the House tried to secure a $200 million dollar appropriation request from surplus funds in the base budget. However, that rider to the budget failed along with many others when the Senate and House could not reach an agreement. According to the transportation chair "we have a lot of work to do to convince our friends on the Senate that the Rail Relocation and Improvement Fund is a priority."

Federal Railroad Administrator Amit Bose, a keynote speaker at the rail conference, urged Texas officials to be ready with plans when the FRA announces new Notices of Funding Opportunities (NOFO's). Bose discussed how Amtrak received a Corridor ID grant to scope out high-speed rail between Dallas and Houston; TxDOT received grants for Houston to San Antonio and from Houston via College Station to Dallas; Amtrak and the Southern Rail Commission were awarded a scoping grant from Dallas to Meridian, MS (Atlanta) and the North Central Texas Council of Governments on a high-speed link between Fort Worth and Dallas. Bose said that "building that collaborative partnership, if Amtrak is your primary partner or another service operator, early in the planning process to develop your service together is important and I really encourage that."

In a video presentation, Texas Congressman Troy Nehls, Chairman of the House T&I Subcommittee on Railroads, Pipelines and Hazardous Materials expressed his support for high-speed rail. "I publicly stated I am in support of high-speed rail in America where it makes sense. As our states grow, so should our infrastructure and I believe having a variety of transportation options is preferrable". Nehls did say that limited government resources should not be wasted on projects that are not financially viable and plagued with delays.

The Director of the Rail Division at the Texas Department of Transportation, Jeff Davis, discussed conventional passenger rail in the Texas Triangle. While TxDOT received two Corridor ID planning grants, a third and important one for the I-35 travel corridor from Dallas-Fort Worth to Austin and San Antonio did not make the cut.  "TxDOT had a clerical error in our submission and that made it ineligible for the FRA to review it", according to Davis. "When the next Notice of Funding Opportunity (NOFO) comes out we will reapply for that leg and in the meantime we will look at everything in that corridor through the State Rail Plan. We hope that the FRA will approve the NOFO and we will not lose pace with the other two legs of the triangle." 

Keep in mind that Step 2 and step 3, to move from a service development plan to construction phases would require a 10 to 20% state share to obtain up to 90% federal funding. That would be dependent on legislators appropriating money for the conventional passenger rail projects (non-high speed rail).

The next session of the Texas legislature begins in mid-January 2025 and advocates will have to work together to obtain those state funding dollars.