Attendees at the Transit Coalition of North Texas were told today that there are 65 bills in the Texas House and Senate that could ultimately end present and future passenger train service, whether at the local or regional level or even high speed rail between our cities. That's a sobering number to comprehend. Attacks on passenger rail projects in Texas have us scratching our head in wonder.
As more and more people relocate to Texas and as we reach critical mass on our highways these 65 bills will deny Joe and Jane Public a choice in transportation options and leave them stranded in highway congestion hell for decades to come.
The plan to deny Texans their choice of travel is being pushed along by a select number of legislators with various agendas. Republican Senator Konni Burton's Senate Bill 385 with companion House Bill 4160 from Democrat Representative Joe Pickett would require voter approval of any federal funds for commuter rail projects that run through a town. We find both bills to be highly discriminatory toward one mode of transportation: passenger rail. Stopping a railroad at the city limit because the next town voted no doesn't sound like good policy. If voters in one town approved a highway project and in the next town citizens voted it down there would be transportation chaos on the roads. Imagine if the same was applied toward accepting any federal highway funding, federal airport funding, federal port or waterway funding.
Burton's anger seems to be aimed at TEXRail, a Tarrant County commuter rail project, that she didn't like because it was awarded Federal Transit Administration funding. The rail line, now being built between downtown Fort Worth and DFW International Airport runs in Burton's district near some pricey homes in Southlake and Colleyville on a rail line that has operated for over 100 years. While councils in both towns soundly said no to a rail station to serve their community other towns are moving ahead with millions of dollars in transit oriented economic development even before the first train runs. Those latter towns apparently recognize how a connected transportation system can serve the needs of their citizens while Southlake and Colleyville are content to live under a bubble. That's no reason for Burton and Pickett to deny other commuters in North Texas the chance to have a better quality of life and cut the time they spend fighting traffic.
A gaggle of rural Senators and Representatives whose districts lie between Dallas and Houston have filed over 20 bills to kill a private company that wants to invest upwards of $10 billion dollars to build a high speed rail line running trains between the mega-regions at 200 miles per hour. The 100 foot right of way, elevated most of the way and adjacent in many areas next to those tall electric grid towers, would mean construction jobs for 10,000 workers and billions in economic development throughout the state. The company, Texas Central Railway, has repeatedly said it will accept no state or federal grants. In other words, less red tape and built faster than any highway project we have seen in modern times. Legislators opposing the project claim that the railroad does not have eminent domain rights and that the private company will fail miserably and leave Texans holding the bag. One Senator, Republican Charles Schwertner, has again filed a rider to the state budget that would severely impact how the Texas Department of Transportation would interface with any company that wanted to build a rail line in Texas and run trains over 110 miles per hour. We consider placing this rider in the budget bill, reserved for deciding how our tax dollars are to be allocated for state needs, a self-serving misuse of the legislative process. There is no dollar amount tied to this rider. It tells TxDOT, a planning agency, that it can't be involved in planning and creates mountains of paperwork. How else can a private company interface with a state agency to build anything? Rider #48 is highly discriminatory against one particular form of transportation: trains running over 11o miles and hour. Last session Schwertner's rider was kicked out in the final minutes of budget reconciliation late in the night. This rider should not see the light of day. The wording of the rider follows these comments.
Other bills are starting to wind their way through Senate and House Transportation and Land & Resource Management Committees. We urge you to get the railroad bill numbers that we have posted on the TRA website, follow them and don't hesitate to contact your State Senator and Representative and let them know how you feel. This is your time to say "that it's your way or you only have the highway".
How a Senate Budget Rider Can Derail A High Speed Rail Project
Article VII, TxDOT rider 48.
Limitation on Expenditures for High-speed Rail.
None of the funds appropriated above to the Department of Transportation from state funds may be used for the purposes of subsidizing or assisting in the planning, facility construction or maintenance, security for, or operation of high-speed rail operated by a private entity. If the Department of Transportation acts as a joint-lead agency with a federal agency under 40 C.F.R. Sec. 1506.2, this section does not prevent the Department of Transportation from using state funds to exercise its authority for oversight and coordination of federal processes and programs. For the purposes of this section, high-speed rail means intercity passenger rail service that is reasonably expected to reach speeds of at least 110 miles per hour.
The Department of Transportation shall prepare a report every six months summarizing the number of Full-Time -Equivalent (FTE) hours and expenses related to private high-speed rail work. The report shall be distributed to members of the Legislature whose districts include the potential high-speed rail projects and the chairs of relevant policy committees in each chamber.
Nothing in this provision is intended to preclude or limit the Department of Transportation from executing its responsibilities under state or federal law including regulatory responsibilities, oversight of transportation projects, environmental review, policy development, and communication with public officials.