July 4, 2023 - TRA Commentary -
Now that $700,000 in emergency funding is in place from the North Central Texas Council of Governments (NCTCOG), the Amtrak Heartland Flyer won't have to cut train service during the busy summer peak season.
While the Oklahoma DOT allocated enough funding for their share of the popular passenger service, the state of Texas did not. The Texas Department of Transportation had been contributing $2.4 million a year for the daily service over the last decade, but had not seen fit to adjust its share for inflation, labor, higher fuel costs and other items, leading to the current crisis.
"Truncating service would be a horrible image for both the state and city," according to Michael Morris, Director of Transportation for NCTCOG. Amtrak has submitted an application to provide service from DFW to Atlanta, service between Dallas and Houston, also additional trains from DFW to Austin/San Antonio.
Morris said "Can you image the magnitude of those investments and our attempt to get our fair share of infrastructure money and we turn our back on Amtrak going to Oklahoma City for a few months this summer?"
The daily Fort Worth to Oklahoma City rail corridor is a state partnered service between the Texas and Oklahoma Department of Transportation because it falls under a 750-mile-long rule that would place it under federal policy.
Like all other modes of transportation during the pandemic, the train was hit hard by a drop in ridership and revenue but bounced back this year with strong numbers. The State’s Supplemental Budget for the biennium ending August 31, 2023, did not include funding to address the shortfall, nor did the Texas Transportation Commission factor it in to their transportation budget that went to the legislature this past session. Highway projects are adjusted for inflation but rail, apparently, gets ignored.
The Regional Transportation Council of NCTCOG unanimously approved the contingency funding at their June 8th meeting in Arlington. Transportation Director Morris said he previously met with the Speaker of the Texas House, Dade Phelan, over the funding shortfall. "The Speaker indicated this was important for the State of Texas and an adjustment to the budget would be made. Lots of things occurred in Austin since that time and that budget amendment is no longer there. I'm going to get into the politics of all that."
Morris indicated that with increased ridership and revenue the $700,000 emergency appropriation may be significantly lower.
In pre-pandemic 2019 the Heartland Flyer boarded some 59,000 passengers at Fort Worth and 6,500 at Gainesville. Those number fell by almost half during Covid years 2020-2021 but have been rebounding. The train carried over 77,000 passengers in peak year last decade but numbers started to fall with no marketing effort on the Texas side. The train has been operating continuously since June 14, 1999.
Periodic efforts had been underway to add a second round-trip to allow a full day for business or pleasure at cities served, but had not been on TxDOT's agenda.
A 2010 report for TxDOT by the Texas A&M Transportation Institute, showed about $18 million was generated in defined economic benefits to cities and towns in Oklahoma and Texas from the train over a 12 month period. That includes lodging, meals, shopping, and entertainment on passenger trips.
Video of Item 5, June 8, 2023 Regional Transportation Council https://nctcog.new.swagit.com/videos/06092023-585
Photo credit: Heartland Flyer TX-OU Game Train at Fort Worth Station