Want to move more freight trains efficiently in Texas in 2030, 2040 and beyond?
An analysis of two major Texas Department of Transportation freight rail studies in 2021, one for the Houston-Beaumont Region and the other for the Dallas-Fort Worth Metroplex, indicate there is a lot to be done to alleviate future freight rail congestion across our state.
While railroads often self-fund many major improvements out of their own capital programs, there are a number of projects in the two extensive studies that could be accomplished if the state would be a partner and step up to match available federal rail funds. Unlike many other states that participate in competitive federal rail funding programs with a state match, Texas, over the past decade, had not taken advantage of over $19 billion in federal rail programs that required some form of state partnership.
These federal cost-sharing programs, ranging from roadway-rail separation projects, installation of protective devices like enhanced crossing gates and signals and closure of little-used vehicle crossings, would have meant hundreds of millions of dollars coming to Texas if there was a fair share for rail, just as we do for highways. There are even some federal programs for passenger rail that would have significant side benefits for freight railroads.
The recently passed Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act (IIJA) with it's competitive federal-state programs gives Texas a once-in-a-generation chance to complete important rail projects that would otherwise be sidelined for a lack of funding.
The Federal Railroad Administration and the Federal Transit Administration have other competitive and discretionary grant programs besides TIFIA, CRISI, INFRA, BUILD, RAISE and Section 130 that Texas has not taken full advantage of because the state has no skin in the game. Other states with as little as a 20% match have walked away with the prize.
There is a solution if our state legislators want to value rail as one of the key transportation modes like we do our highways, airports and marine ports. A kickstart appropriation using the Texas Rail Relocation and Improvement Fund (RRIF), Appropriated Fund 0306, would help to get the state its share of competitive funding in the next five years through the Infrastructure Act. The RRIF is a Constitutional fund approved by voters in 2009 but never activated by state leaders. It would provide a method of financing the relocation and improvement of privately and publicly owned passenger and freight rail facilities to: relieve congestion on public highways, enhance public safety, improve air quality, expand economic opportunity and construct railroad underpasses and overpasses if a part of the relocation of a rail facility. Receives proceeds from bonds and notes and dedications and appropriations made by the legislature. That's how the law reads.
Projects that have been defined in both the Houston-Beaumont Region and the DFW Metroplex Freight Rail Studies would allow for more efficient transit of goods by rail, enhance public safety, grade-separate highway rail crossings to eliminate waiting times for trains to pass, attract new rail-served companies to the state and help move more trucks off our stressed highways and onto railroads.
A TxDOT Statewide Crossing Study, completed in August 2021, identified 20 important at-grade crossings as potential grade separation or crossing improvement projects. Those 20 projects are waiting for a money source, something that could happen years sooner if Texas could compete for federal pots of money.
It will take a coalition of state, regional and local transportation leaders to make this once-in-a-generation federal rail "gift" a reality in Texas. The 2023 legislative session would be the turning point with the first commitment to kickstart the Rail Relocation and Improvement Fund.