June 4, 2022 - TRA Newswire -

There is actual interest in pursuing grants for state rail projects at the Texas Department of Transportation, an agency not noted for putting out news releases on rail efforts and that has been hesitant to utter the word "rail" compared to highways.

As the clock started counting down the days in early May to apply for federal rail projects under the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act (IIJA) passed by Congress, there was silence from TxDOT about any state participation. TxDOT's potential share of funds could run into billions of dollars, seeing that Texas has the most rail miles of any state and is a top performer for moving freight by rail.

Some $66 billion in advance federal appropriations will be distributed to states over the next 5 years, with another potential $40-some billion benefit in authorized funds depending on the whims of Congress,

Federal Railroad Administration Chief Counsel Allison Ishihara Fultz, speaking at the Southwestern Rail Conference in Dallas on April 1st, said that Texas passenger and freight rail programs could benefit from a basket of new and expanded FRA programs. They include grade-crossing safety projects, new passenger rail corridors, eliminating rail choke points and improving short line railroads that will enhance local economic development.  

But will TxDOT and its overseer, the Texas Transportation Commission, known for its penchant for highways, highways and more highways now focus on this once-in-a-generation gift from Congress?

A formal request was sent to TxDOT's new Rail Division Director, Jeff Davis, on May 17th asking for the agency's official position on plans to pursue federal rail funding programs. Transportation executives responded in short order to our request, marking the first time that TxDOT hierarchy have issued a statement on the future direction of the Rail Division. The fledgling agency was only created in 2009 when Texas Rail Advocates became the driving force to convince TxDOT that the state needed a full-time staffed rail division, like other states.

TxDOT executives responded to the following questions posed by TRA:

Q: The Transportation Commission and TxDOT have not yet issued a position statement if the agency is interested in considering participation in IIJA rail grant programs through the Federal Railroad Administration. What is the official position please? A: TxDOT has applied for IIJA discretionary grants and is interested in rail grant programs.

Q: Should funds become available through agency account transfers or from a legislative appropriation, will TxDOT file for competitive rail grant programs? A: The FRA hasn't released the NOFO's (Notice of Funding Opportunities) for the competitive funding programs of CRISI and grade crossing elimination. TxDOT is preparing projects in anticipation of these grants, but the state will not have an official position until the terms of the NOFO are announced by the FRA.

Q. Is the agency interested in participating in the FRA Corridor Identification Program? A: TxDOT will follow state laws concerning passenger rail coordination. We are currently communicating with state, regional, and local governments to develop a strategy for the program. TxDOT does understand the time requirements of the program.

Q. Is the agency interested in joining with other states in forming an Interstate Rail Compact under the IIJA guidelines? A: TxDOT will consider opportunities for a compact if they arise through stakeholder coordination in the Corridor Identification Program. 

These responses show that TxDOT now recognizes that rail can and should be a key component in the a multi-modal transportation network and this is a positive step in the right direction.

However, unless Texas legislators can come up with a kickstart appropriation that TxDOT can apply toward an 80/20 or 70/30 minimum federal-to-state match for competitive rail programs the state will again give up hundreds or millions if not billions of dollars to other states. 

Texas Rail Advocates, in our Fair-Share-For-Rail campaign, points out that the dormant Rail Relocation and Improvement Fund (Appropriated Fund 0306) could be the vehicle used to allow TxDOT to apply for matching grants. 

"We accomplished many great highway projects through federal/state cost-sharing programs. The same can be done with pages of projects just waiting to be started in the TxDOT Texas Rail Plan document," according the Texas Rail Advocates President Peter LeCody. "Even regional, conventional passenger rail that is sorely needed in the I-35 Austin-San Antonio crowded corridor and elsewhere could be implemented if legislators and Governor Abbott will plan for the future. The Infrastructure Law gives us the means. This is a generational chance to do good for the people of Texas."

Photo credit: Railway Age