May 29, 2023 - TRA Austin -

The massive Texas state budget, with billions of dollars in surplus taxpayer funds, came up short again for any meaningful passenger and freight rail projects in 2024-25 plans. These budget cycles continue to repeat with the development of rail being ignored. 

Even with dozens of local and regional governmental agencies joining in Texas Rail Advocates "Fair-Share-For-Rail" coalition, there was just enough money allocated to keep the Texas Department of Transportation's Rail Division operating for the next two years.

The tiny agency within the department of transportation will receive $10,636.553 in fiscal year 2024 and $10,783,553 in fiscal year 2025 to run their entire operation. It's more like a rounding error at TxDOT. That's slightly more than the $10 million allocated to the Texas State Railroad, which a private company operates between Palestine and Rusk in East Texas as a tourist train attraction. 

Part of the problem lies with the Texas Transportation Commission. The agency has failed to pay attention to rail as a needed component in TxDOT's supposed commitment to being a multi-modal agencymoving people and goods across the state. The Commission did not even ask for an "exceptional item" request from the legislature, which would have meant using general funds so Texas could start to tap into billions in federal rail project dollars now available through the Infrastructure Bill passed by Congress.

Texas will miss out on the first and second year for federal grants by not being prepared to apply for competitive rail funding programs. Those billions in federal grants in year one and two, to be parceled out over a five year period, will now go to other states that were prepared to move forward.

The transportation budget goal of "optimizing services and systems" will funnel over $287 million into "supporting and promoting general aviation" over the next two years while the goal to "support and promote public transportation" will receive over $271 million. 

Page 765 of the Texas budget states under Federal Funding for the Texas Rail Plan "The Department of Transportation shall make it a top priority to seek, obtain, maximize, and expend federal funding for rail and other related multimodal transportation funding, including rail relocation and improvement funds from the Federal Highway Administration, Federal Railroad Administration, and Federal Transit Administration. Contingent upon the availability and receipt of federal rail and other related federal multi-modal funds to the State, such federal funds are appropriated to the Department of Transportation."

Note there is no mention of state participation in these billion dollar federal programs. Without a minimum state match of 20%, up to an 80% federal share of rail funds will remain elusive. Typically, the federal/state matching funds are oversubscribed and without a state buy-in Texas will be shut out.

Three rail project studies in the transportation budget did receive funding on page 770. Note, these are studies and have no guaranteed financial support once they are completed.  If past history repeats itself, the studies will follow many other TxDOT studies in the Texas Rail Plan that have been completed during the last decade and have no hope of being funded by the state.

Item #49. Railroad Grade Separation Project Study. Using funds appropriated above, the Department of Transportation shall conduct a study to determine the feasibility, costs, and benefits of constructing roadway-railroad grade separation projects located in the vicinity of Lockwood Drive at Harrisburg Boulevard and Lockwood Drive at Clinton Drive in Harris County. Not later than December 31, 2024, the department shall submit to the Legislative Budget Board a report on the results of the study. 

Item #50. U.S. 290 Traffic Study. Using funds appropriated above, the Department of Transportation shall conduct a study on options for reducing traffic congestion on segments of U.S. 290 that serve as hurricane evacuation routes and include at-grade rail crossings. In conducting the study, the department shall consider projected traffic and usage patterns, projected usage during disasters, and the potential use of the Texas Rail Relocation and Improvement Fund to address rail crossing issues.

Item #51. Port of Victoria Rail Expansion Study. Using amounts appropriated above, the Department of Transportation shall conduct a study regarding the costs and potential benefits of the rail expansion project at the Port of Victoria identified in the Port Capital Investment Report included in the Port Authority Advisory Committee’s 2024-2025 Texas Port Mission Plan. The department may conduct the study in consultation with the Texas A&M Transportation Institute. The study shall identify and evaluate potential state, federal, and other funding sources for the rail expansion project. Not later than December 31, 2024, the Department of Transportation shall submit to the Legislative Budget Board a report summarizing the findings of the study, including any recommendations regarding methods of financing for the project.

The sole reference to the Texas Rail Relocation and Improvement Fund, which voters approved over a decade ago but has remained unfunded, mentions "in accordance with Section 49-o of Article III of the Texas Constitution and Section 201.973 of Chapter 201, Transportation Code, the department is authorized to pay debt service  payments for notes issued or money borrowed on funds contained in the Texas Rail Relocation and Improvement Fund No. 0306 from money in that fund." However no exception funding has ever been asked for by the Transportation Commission so the RRIF paragraph in the state budget remains basically a footnote on page 763.

The legislature's aversion to any private high-speed rail project shows up, as it does each budget cycle in the transportation budget. This continues to discourage any outside private development of high speed rail linking our cities. On page 767 it clearly spells out that "no state funds can be appropriated to the Department of Transportation from state funds may be used for the purposes of subsidizing or assisting in the planning, facility construction or maintenance, security for, or operation of high-speed rail operated by a private entity." High speed rail is defined as 110mph or higher. Fortunately, it does allow state oversight of any future projects.

One minor win occurred with the passage of House Bill 4015 from Representative Ed Thompson. The TxDOT Rail Division will get about an additional $500K for the rail safety program through the state highway fund. Previously a percentage of the aprox $1.6 million collected from railroads operating in Texas was directed to general funds, and not directly to the rail division. 

Also in the budget (page 765) through the sale of surplus TxDOT property "The Department of Transportation may spend no more than $500,000 in a fiscal year for passenger rail projects authorized under the provisions of Chapter 91, Transportation Code, from funds appropriated by this rider. Not exactly a windfall to do anything meaningful to increase conventional passenger rail service between cities. Possibly to kick off another study that will gather dust on TxDOT shelves once it is completed.  

Photo credit: TxDOT - Mineola, Texas Amtrak station