January 1, 2023 - TRA Newswire -

In the waning days of December, the Federal Railroad Administration (FRA) announced it is now accepting project proposals for intercity passenger-rail corridors under the new Federal Corridor Identification and Development Program.

This will open up a fully-funded federal planning grant for states that want to expand rail service between cities. 

States, transit agencies and eligible stakeholders will have until March 20th this year to apply for long-term planning grants or to advance projects that already have some level of plans for construction. Some states are already ahead of the curve with "shovel ready" projects that could be funded later this year. 

If TxDOT follows through on the latest step in the federal Infrastructure Investment and Job Act (IIJA) Corridor ID program and the FRA concurs with the five potential state corridors submitted, TxDOT could be granted $500,000 in federal planning funds for each of any approved pathways.

There is no actionable word yet from TxDOT on this crucial next step, with response due to the FRA by March 20. 

The Texas Department of Transportation took the first baby step on October 5, 2022 when Executive Director Marc Williams submitted an "expression of interest" to the FRA for five potential passenger rail corridors in the state.

Had TxDOT not filed to show interest it would have found itself at the end of the funding line to be considered for a share of billions in federal rail grants. No financial commitment was needed for the expression of interest, only the desire of the state to be on an eligible list.

FRA Administrator Amit Bose, in a news release, indicated it had received extensive interest from states, local leaders and the public for intercity passenger-rail service in many regions and communities, "The corridor ID program will allow the federal government to help with the long-term planning and delivery of new passenger rail projects nationwide," according to Bose. Supporting letters for more passenger rail service were submitted by Fort Worth, Austin, San Antonio and Houston city officials.

Any subsequent steps past the 100% funded federal planning grants would require a state buy-in of some 20-30% on passenger rail projects to get up to an 80% federal match.

An 80% federal math is something we have seen for decades with highway construction but never before for rail projects", according to Texas Rail Advocates President Peter LeCody. "The Corridor ID program is a once-in-a-generation approach to helping Texas think outside of the highway box with as little as a 20% state match for funding. It will require the Texas Transportation Commission, TxDOT and our legislators to step up with a kickstart appropriation for funding rail projects.  If not,  those billions in federal grants will go to other states. Is that what we want?", asks LeCody.  

The FRA news release said the Corridor ID program will "reverse decades of under investment in rail infrastructure" with the development of new intercity passenger rail service. It would help fast growing economies like Texas  to offer diverse transportation choices.  

The five passenger-rail corridors submitted by TxDOT under the "expression of interest" are:

  • New and enhanced conventional intercity service options in the Texas-Oklahoma Passenger Rail Study ("I-35  Corridor) that include connecting the Amtrak San Antonio station to the Rio Grande Valley. The corridor is only served by the once-a-day long distance Texas Eagle between Fort Worth to San Antonio.
  • Renewed service from Dallas to Houston (via College Station). This popular Amtrak service ended in the late 90's during budget cuts and is eligible for restoration in the IIJA restoration grant phase.  
  • Additional service between San Antonio and Houston. The two cities are only connected by the tri-weekly Sunset Limited. An additional station stop near the mid-point at Flatonia, Texas has been requested by city leaders. It would serve many cities and counties without intercity connections between Houston and San Antonio.
  • Additional train sets on the Heartland Flyer from Fort Worth to Oklahoma City. At present the joint Oklahoma-Texas DOT partnered service only has one round-trip a day that includes a stop in Gainesville. 
  • New service from Dallas to east of Marshall, TX connecting to Amtrak's national service at Meridian, MS. The connection would allow North and East Texans to reach northern Louisiana cities, Atlanta and onward to the east coast on the Amtrak Crescent service, which originates in New Orleans.

Any improvements to enhance passenger rail service in Texas will have a secondary benefit for the freight railroads on which Amtrak or others operate. Any track, signal, infrastructure improvements or elimination of railroad "choke points" to allow the smooth flow of passenger trains will also help with the movement of goods to and from Texas manufacturing and distribution facilities.