December 16, 2022 - TRA Austin -

The Texas House Transportation Committee Interim Report recommends utilizing a long-dormant but still on-the-books fund to boost improvements to the state's rail system.

The Texas Rail Relocation and Improvement Fund (appropriated fund 0306) was approved by voters in a constitutional amendment back in 2005 but never activated and not funded by the state legislature. 

Texas House Speaker Dade Phelan issued a series of charges to the Transportation Committee following the 2021 legislative session and one of the interim directives concerned current and future mobility needs.

The recommendation from the Transportation Committee Interim Report stated "the Legislature should appropriate funding into the Texas Rail Relocation and Improvement Fund (RRIF) to be used as a strategic funding mechanism to assist the rail industry in seizing IIJA rail grant funds for improvements to the state‚Äôs rail infrastructure."

The federal Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act (IIIJA) has some $36 billion in advanced appropriations that will find its way into rail projects around the country over a five year period. This is the first time that federal rail funding has had a 20% low-threshold state entry match requirement to access grants.

If the legislature follows the recommendation to put a kickstart appropriation in the Rail Relocation and Improvement Fund (RRIF), it would authorize the Texas Department of Transportation to "finance the relocation and improvement of privately and publicly owned passenger and freight rail facilities in order to relieve highway congestion, enhance public safety, improve air quality, and expand economic opportunity," according to the language of fund 0306. It may also be used for construction of railroad underpasses and overpasses if related to the relocation of a rail facility.

Interim charge #3 titled Transportation Planning Urgency required the Transportation Committee "study current and future transportation needs and consider improvements to ensure that Texas is adequately planning for the state's population growth forecasts. Evaluate the impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic on transportation projects and investment decisions."  

The House Transportation Committee, Chaired by Texas Representative Terry Canales, heard testimony on all modes of transportation this past April during hearings in Austin. Testimony included Texas Rail Advocates President Peter LeCody and Texas Short Line and Regional Railroad Association President Paul Treangen. 

"It's critical that the state participate and receive it's Fair Share in the billions of federal dollars that are now being made available through the Infrastructure Law that Congress passed in 2021", according to Texas Rail Advocates President Peter LeCody. "Many of the new and expanded freight and passenger rail programs from the Federal Railroad Administration are on a competitive grant basis. If Texas can't come up with a 20% share to receive 80% federal funding for freight and passenger rail projects, those funds will go to other states." 

Texas Rail Advocates supports a $200 million initial kickstart appropriation to the RRIF, carved out of the potential state surplus that State Comptroller Glenn Hegar will announce in January. 

Texas will most likely not be in the line for the first year's announcement of grants, which will happen in spring 2023 but TxDOT will have up to four other years to try for the competitive grants if legislators deposit a kickstart appropriation into the RRIF.

A "Fair-Share-For-Rail" campaign, started by TRA in 2021, has resulted in resolutions and letters of support sent to elected and appointed state officials from counties, cities, ports, economic development agencies and chambers of commerce around the state.

"Texas has pages and pages of important projects in the TxDOT State Rail Plan that are waiting to be funded but will never see the light of day without some sort of funding into the RRIF", according to LeCody. "The Infrastructure bill is a once-in-a-generation kickstart for the entire rail network. We can fix dangerous railroad-vehicle crossings, connect our cities with conventional passenger rail service, improve ship-to-rail movement at our ports, remove railroad choke points and help our state shippers get their products to market faster."
 

The RRIF, by law, is allowed to "receive proceeds from bonds and notes as well as dedications and appropriations made by the legislature." 

There was only one other recommendation under Transportation Charge #3, which would also benefit the future of rail projects in the state. "The Legislature should convene a committee similar to the 2030 Committee of 2008 and 2010 to assess the state's transportation infrastructure and mobility needs through 2045. Similarly to the 2030 Committee, the 2045 Committee should develop an analysis of the current state of the Texas transportation system, determining the household costs of underinvesting in the system, and identifying potential revenue options to fund transportation improvements", according to thr report. 

The entire Interim Report can be found here: https://house.texas.gov/_media/pdf/committees/reports/87interim/Transportation-Committee-Interim-Report-2022.pdf?v=2