May 25, 2017 - (Updated June 4, 2017) -  TRA Newswire -

Two bills which Texas Rail Advocates describes as being discriminatory toward high speed rail versus other modes of transportation have passed through the Texas House and Senate and were sent to Governor Abbott to sign. The Governor signed one and is still contemplating the other.

"These two bills are solutions looking for problems that do not exist," according to Texas Rail Advocates President Peter LeCody. "There is no state money appropriated for high speed rail, no entity has applied for state funding for high speed rail and the only private company wanting to build a bullet train at this point has emphatically stated they don't want any state funds. So why is the legislature wasting our precious time and taxpayer money concerned about something that doesn't even exist?"

One of the bills, Senate Bill 977,  specifically states that no state money can be used toward a private entity that wants to build a high speed passenger railroad project that is defined as operating over 110 miles per hour. State funds have previously been used to support private participation in highway, airport and port projects in the past. This bill creates excess bureaucratic paperwork that TxDOT will have to generate on a regular basis. That bill was signed into law by Governor Abbott on May 29th.

Senate Bill 975, which was sent to Governor Abbott on May 23rd and has not been signed into law, requires layers of security for a high speed passenger railroad that are already addressed under federal law and adds additional layers of bureaucracy to maintaining safety. No state law covers any other mode of transportation to this degree such as buses, transit, taxis, private charters, airports or cruise ships.

Senate Bill 977 amends the Transportation Code to prohibit the legislature from appropriating money to pay for a cost of planning, facility construction or maintenance, or security for, promotion of, or operation of, high-speed rail operated by a private entity, and to prohibit a state agency from accepting or using state money to pay for such a cost, except as required by federal law or other state law. The bill defines "high-speed rail" as intercity passenger rail service that is reasonably expected to reach speeds of at least 110 miles per hour. The bill requires a state agency to prepare a semiannual report of each such expense for high-speed rail and to submit a copy of each report to the Texas Transportation Commission, the comptroller of public accounts, the committee in each house of the legislature with primary jurisdiction over transportation, the speaker of the house of representatives, the lieutenant governor, and the governor. The bill establishes that its provisions are not intended to preclude or limit the execution of the Texas Department of Transportation's responsibilities under federal law or other state law

The other bill, Senate Bill 975, amends the Transportation Code to require a private entity operator of a passenger rail service that is reasonably expected to reach speeds of at least 110 miles per hour, in the manner required by law for intercity passenger railroads, to implement all security requirements of the federal Transportation Security Administration (TSA) or its successor agency, conduct periodic risk-based threat and vulnerability assessments, and, in consultation with the TSA, implement appropriate security measures in response to results of the assessments. The bill requires such a high-speed rail operator to collect and investigate security threat reports submitted by members of the public. The bill requires an operator to designate employees who are managers or supervisors whose position description, job duties, or assignment includes emergency management responsibilities and to require those employees to complete the emergency management training under the Texas Disaster Act of 1975, as provided by the Department of Public Safety (DPS). The bill prohibits an operator from using the services of a peace officer employed by the state or a political subdivision of the state unless the operator compensates the state or political subdivision, as applicable, for the officer's time. S.B. 975 requires a high-speed rail operator to coordinate security activities and investigations with federal, state, and local law enforcement agencies, including by communicating about credible threats, major events, and vulnerable places along the rail line or on a train. The bill requires such an operator to communicate as appropriate with the state Emergency Management Council and the Texas Division of Emergency Management about safety and security issues. The bill requires DPS, to the extent not preempted by federal law, to administer and enforce the bill's provisions and authorizes DPS to that extent to adopt rules as necessary to administer the bill's provisions. The bill grants DPS, in carrying out the powers and duties under the bill's provisions,

The Texas Department of Transportation underwent Sunset Review during the current session. The only change noted by the Sunset Committee and approved by the legislature  (C.S.S.B. 312) changes the frequency with which TxDOT is required to update the long-term plan for a statewide passenger rail system from annually to at least once every five years. The bill includes among the required contents of the rail system plan an analysis of short-term and long-term effects of each proposed passenger rail system on state and local road connectivity and an analysis of the effect of each proposed passenger rail system on statewide transportation planning.

Texas Rail Advocates submitted testimony on TxDOT Sunset which included setting up a Rail Division Committee of stakeholders to help guide and advise the department on freight and passenger rail issues, similar to what TXDOT's Aviation and Port Divisions now have. That suggestion fell on deaf ears.

The Governor has already signed HB 1140 which splits urban transit funding into large and small urbanized area categories. Over 200,000 population areas would be considered large urban while populations under 200,000 would be classified as a small region.

Several other transportation bills which are on the Governor's desk would allow overweight and oversize trucks to further damage state highways and bridges, offset by a small permit fee (HB4156 and SB 1524).