November 25, 2016 - TRA Newswire -

It's the Texas Department of Transportation's turn to undergo Sunset Review, as ordered by the Texas legislature, and Texas Rail Advocates has filed a public document recommending the Sunset Commission make some legislative and procedural changes to strengthen passenger and freight rail development in Texas. Those recommendations include establishing a Rail Advisory Committee, at long last funding the 2005 Rail Relocation and Improvement Fund, applying for federal rail grants and devoting more resources to highway-rail grade crossing safety.

The Sunset process sets a date on which an agency is abolished unless the Legislature passes a bill to continue it. Sunset staff evaluates the agency and issues recommendations for positive change. The Commission considers the recommendations, hears public testimony, and decides on a package of changes to bring to the full Legislature.

TRA, in the filing, is asking the Sunset Commission to consider six areas where both the legislature and TxDOT can improve the movement of both people and goods in Texas.

1. Appendix A - A number of advisory committees have been created in Statue
or by Rule. Those include Aviation, Border Trade, Port Authority, Public
Transportation (mainly rural),  Bicycle and Freight Advisory. Conspicuously
lacking is an advisory committee made up of passenger and freight rail users,
providers and the general public. If TxDOT is to be a truly multi-modal
agency then an advisory panel is the right step forward. The panel should
include representatives from Texas Short Line Railroads, whose nearly 50
operators provide a needed economic stimulus to local business and industry.

2.  In the past several years TxDOT has not applied for numerous federal
grants made available for passenger and freight rail projects, including
under the TIGER program. Is this a lack of planning, concentrating more on
other modes or lack of funding from the legislature?

3. The legislature has ignored the will of Texans by failing to fund The
Texas Rail Relocation and Improvement Fund, known as the RRIF, (Proposition
1) which passed November 8, 2005 as a legislatively referred constitutional
amendment. The measure created a Texas rail relocation and improvement fund
in the state treasury and authorized grants of state revenue and issuance of
public debt to relocate, rehabilitate, and expand privately and publicly
owned passenger and freight rail facilities and to construct railroad
underpasses and overpasses.

4.  There are unused appropriations in other inactive State accounts which
could be reallocated to fund the RRIF without needing new appropriations.
This repurposing of funds already in hand but unused would fulfill a mandate
approved by the Legislature and the voters of Texas.

5. Texas has the most rail miles and public rail-highway crossings of any
state in the nation. We also have the unneeded distinction of having a
significant number of fatalities and injuries at grade crossings.  We suggest
that TxDOT should identify the most critical rail-highway crossings on an
annual basis and provide funding to alleviate these higher risk
intersections.  There are new, low-cost technologies available which could
potentially reduce the risk of fatal incidents; TXDoT should investigate and
trial them.

6. One minor point of note: On page 13 under Rail, not mentioned is the fact
that TxDOT also owns a significant share of the North East Texas rail
operation, the lines managed by the North East Texas Rural Rail District
(NETEX).  TXDoT has consistently failed to provide the kind of financial
support tendered to the South Orient lines, even though the northeastern
counties of Texas are a  neglected and economically depressed area; NETEX
could be an economic generator for those counties.

According to the Commission website, "the Commission generally considers each agency under review during two public meetings.  About a month after release of a Sunset staff report, the Commission discusses the report’s recommendations and takes testimony from the public.   Any person is welcome to attend the public hearing and provide feedback on the staff recommendations or other issues relating to the agency." Those public meetings are scheduled for December 8 and 9 in Austin.

About a month after the public hearing, the Sunset Commission meets again to vote on its recommendations to the full Legislature about the agency.