The following is the testimony of TRA Executive Director Chris Lippincott at Thursday's Texas House Transportation Committee hearing on four bills that would either delay or outright kill a bullet train project and could also affect future high speed rail projects now under study by TXDOT.
The first bill was heard from 8am to 10am until the full House went into session. The other three bills were heard between 10pm and midnight last night. We thank Chris for his yeomans work in delivering the reasons why high speed rail is important for Texas.
HB 2172 Good morning, for the record, my name is Chris Lippincott, I am the Executive Director of Texas Rail Advocates. TRA is opposed to the committee substitute to HB 2172. Although we understand that the redrafted bill addresses some specific concerns related to the proposed bullet train between Houston and Dallas, our concern is that throwing up road blocks to future projects would discourage innovation in train service in our state.
While it’s certainly good news that TxDOT can continue its statutorily-authorized work to meet federal and state guidelines, there is no value in handcuffing future appropriators who might want to support privately-operated train service in Texas.
The truth is that public and private resources are constantly intermingled to operate our transportation network. Drawing a line at “private operation” is, frankly, a strange distinction when you consider how TxDOT conducts its business on state highway network.
The days of state employee work crews building roads and filling potholes are long-since gone – captured in photos celebrating TxDOT’s 100th birthday this year. Now, the state hires private firms to design, build, and maintain highway projects in each of your districts. TxDOT privatizes these essential functions, with the Legislature’s blessing, because of the savings, efficiencies, and expertise the private firms bring to the table. Toll road operation is left to private firms in some areas of the state. Private companies hire and manage bus drivers for public transit authorities around Texas.
If TxDOT identifies a project that meets a specific rail need and private operation – which is what this bill specifically covers – would make the project viable or a better deal for taxpayers, why say no? Why not leave it to the experts at TxDOT to determine whether they would rather hire and train the staff and spend the time and resources on maintenance and safety or contract these duties out to the private sector as they do now with highway design, construction, and maintenance?
As part of the ongoing Texas-Oklahoma Passenger Rail Study, TOPRS, TxDOT has said that engaging a private operator should be explored. Regardless of the speed of the train or who builds it, it’s clear the experts don’t want to close the door on private participation.
About ten years ago, I heard a member of this committee sitting where you sit now say that she didn’t think the government should do anything that a business in the yellow pages was already doing. This was obviously an overstatement, and personally, I have my doubts about the universal application of the “phone book rule,” but she was onto something. Why close the door before we know who’s walking through? Why put this on the TxDOT Rail Division and its seven employees?
I am aware of the clarifications that Rep. Ashby and his staff have made in the committee substitute before you today. We appreciate their efforts and TxDOT’s work to address many concerns that were raised with this bill. We truly do. But in our view, the transportation needs of our state are too stark to start throwing tools out of the toolbox.
This is a state that believes in the power of the private sector to create jobs and support communities across the state. Let’s not lock the entrepreneurial spirit and the business-minded know-how of the private sector out of the room. We simply can’t afford it.
HB 2167 Good morning, for the record, my name is Chris Lippincott, I am the Executive Director of Texas Rail Advocates. TRA was formed in 2000 to educate and inform the public on the benefits of both freight and passenger rail service in Texas and the Southwest. We’re committed to advancing economic growth and enhancing our quality of life by supporting the development of rail service to its full potential as a carrier of freight and passengers across the state.
TRA is opposed to all four bills on this morning’s agenda because we fear that they foreclose opportunities to develop much-needed passenger train projects in this state.
Some of these bills were born out of concern about the proposed Texas Central train between Houston and Dallas. TRA supports this project and other high-speed train proposal for Texas.
And while a well-meaning short-term threat to high-speed train service worries us, layering in new legislative and administrative functions could create a long-term threat to public transit, freight rail and other infrastructure projects statewide. Singling out high-speed rail projects could also wave off private interest or outright kill projects that would serve Austin and San Antonio, the Valley, and eventually communities in West Texas and the Panhandle.
TRA is opposed to the committee substitute to HB 2167. The proposed bill would effectively eliminate private sector financing for high-speed passenger train service in Texas and opens the door to similar intervention for other vital infrastructure projects. The liens proposed in this bill separate high-speed passenger train service from any other transportation project. That’s troubling. What’s worse is the precedent it would set. Establishing the sort of superior lien contemplated in this bill creates an environment that will discourage private sector investment in rail projects across the state.
Establishing this practice for so-called “high-speed” passenger projects sends the message that the state may try to elbow its way into the financing of infrastructure projects from passenger and freight railroads to school buildings and water lines.
Moreover, it’s hard to understand the primacy of the Bond Review Board, as proposed in the committee substitute, in this process. This board, which already carries out profoundly important duties, does not include the Texas Department of Transportation which, at least based on recent history, is the subject matter experts on transportation facilities.
As advocates of rail transportation for freight and passengers, we cannot support legislation that would potentially throw entire rail lines into the laps of state government without input from TxDOT at the right times in the development process. Without the Department’s Railroad and Finance Divisions at the table, this proposal is unworkable.
When I look at the roster of this committee’s members, I see businesspeople and public servants who know that no two financing structures look the same.
If the state invests in a private sector venture, then of course they should have a say in what happens if things go sideways. If the state doesn’t invest, then we shouldn’t be in a position to scuttle a deal – especially one that would battle congestion and bring our Texas cities closer together at no cost to taxpayers. For businesses and individuals who want to help build a better Texas, this is a head-scratcher at best, and a Stop Sign at worst. HB 2163 Good morning, for the record, my name is Chris Lippincott, I am the Executive Director of Texas Rail Advocates. TRA was formed in 2000 to educate and inform the public on the benefits of both freight and passenger rail service in Texas and the Southwest. We’re committed to advancing economic growth and enhancing our quality of life by supporting the development of rail service to its full potential as a carrier of freight and passengers across the state.
TRA is opposed to all four bills on this morning’s agenda because we fear that they foreclose opportunities to develop much-needed passenger train projects in this state. TRA is opposed to HB 2163 because it is an overly prescriptive bill that creates more problems than it solves.
As the members of this committee know as well as anyone who doesn’t draw a paycheck from the USDOT, the environmental review process fully assesses the impact of infrastructure projects on the surrounding environment – flora and fauna. The proposed 40-foot height for pylons is more than twice the current TxDOT requirements for clearance. The Texas Legislature has consistently, and wisely, given the department leeway to manage issues of this precision with input via the NEPA process.
A broad-handed mandate for 40-foot elevation risks foreclosing options to use tunnels for high-speed trains serving Texas cities.
Aside from future opportunities to put all or part of a train line underground, it’s hard to understand how local considerations, which are evaluated under current NEPA process, should be trumped by a one-size-fits-all legislative prescription.
TRA is also concerned that such a towering height for pylons ignores specific environmental issues. In the DFW Metroplex and Texoma communities, lower heights may be able to survive tornado strikes that a 40-foot pylon may not endure. Similarly, lower heights for pylons in coastal communities may preserve the safety of people and property when tropical weather pays a visit.
Furthermore, the line drawn in the bill may make a future train line physically or financially infeasible without adding any benefit to landowners or rail passengers.
There’s an old maxim in transportation politics that there are no democratic or republican potholes. The same can be said of congestion. Road noise and daily traffic fatalities are nothing to cherish.
Bringing our communities closer together and leaving the door open for new ideas represent the best notions of Texas in the 21st century. I hope you’ll keep those values in mind as you scrutinize these troubling proposals.
Policies set forth decades ago have helped make possible more than 10,000 miles of freight track and more than 200 miles of passenger train infrastructure in Texas. These policies and our continued economic and population growth have now attracted new industries and opportunities to our state.
Let’s not send the message that we’ve given up on moving goods, people, and even ideas across the state by starting to hand-select businesses with literally oversized restrictions for industries in a way that does nothing to meaningfully protect the state from anything other than theoretical crises. HB 2104 Good morning, for the record, my name is Chris Lippincott, I am the Executive Director of Texas Rail Advocates. TRA was formed in 2000 to educate and inform the public on the benefits of both freight and passenger rail service in Texas and the Southwest. We’re committed to advancing economic growth and enhancing our quality of life by supporting the development of rail service to its full potential as a carrier of freight and passengers across the state.
TRA is opposed to all four bills on this morning’s agenda because we fear that they foreclose opportunities to develop much-needed passenger train projects in this state. TRA is opposed to HB 2104 because it would establish financial burdens that have never been seen before in Texas for infrastructure projects.
Discouraging high-speed passenger train service for our growing cities would mean that millions of taxpayer dollars already spent on route studies will have gone to waste.
Worse, if we start drawing arbitrary regulatory lines on projects because of their speed, as these bills do, it sends a chilling message to business and investment interests who want to bet on Texas.
Why wouldn’t they think that the proposals before you today to inject the unprecedented barriers into the development process could apply to their industry, too?
And if the new administration in Washington makes good on its promise to spark economic activity by investing in infrastructure and engaging the private sector to deliver transportation projects, I would hope Texas would be in a place to access those opportunities as easily as other states without applying exotic bonding restrictions that could send us to the back of the line.
These “restoration bonds” are unlike anything we’ve seen for roads, utilities, or projects like hospitals or wastewater facilities. If they are embraced for high speed rail projects, the risk of such requirements weighing down state and municipal projects can do nothing but grow.
It’s difficult to know, or in some cases imagine, that restoring land to its “original” use would meet the contemporary needs of local landowners and communities, and the notion that TxDOT and the Transportation Commission would be able to carve out the time and resources to play archaeologists and real estate agents for shuttered rail projects without additional investment is hard to understand.
Without a clearer understanding of how such an unprecedented bond program would be evaluated, quantified and administered, the impact would be the investment of millions of dollars and creation of hundreds or thousands of jobs in other states.
Investors willing cast their lot with the future of Texas will take their capital and the jobs they want to create to states with a better business environment than Texas. -- “A better business environment than Texas” is a phrase I’m not used to saying, but that’s what this bill contemplates. It’s not our way.
Arbitrary financial roadblocks to investment in Texas stand in opposition to our state’s entrepreneurial past and will only benefit innovators in other states at our expense.