February 4, 2024 - TRA Commentary and Analysis - 

Here's the billion dollar question. Can TxDOT, the Texas Transportation Commission and our state lawmakers get on the same page to receive a chunk of $66 billion in guaranteed federal rail grants, or will those funds go to other states that have been aggressive in applying for their share?

Or will those billions, many in competitive federal grants for freight and passenger rail projects, go to other states that have been diligent in their rail planning. 

With this past fall's $8.2 billion grant announcements already parceled out by the Federal Railroad Administration from the historic Bipartisan Infrastructure Law (BIL), there are still opportunities ahead if the Texas Department of Transportation, their bosses at the Texas Transportation Commission and state lawmakers can work together before and during the 2025 state legislature.

Federal Railroad Administrator Amit Bose, who will speak at the 20th Annual Southwestern Rail Conference on April 16th, has urged state officials to make sure they have broad support from all stakeholders in upcoming rounds for more funding opportunities.  

"Here's the rub," according to Texas Rail Advocates President Peter LeCody. "Texas has to pony up with a kickstart appropriation to take advantage of many of the federal rail grant programs that are highly competitive. Right now neither TxDOT, the Transportation Commission or the legislature has focused on the long-range big picture and we have no state funding for rail projects. Texas has the most rail miles of any state, the highest accident rate at rail crossings, and with a growing economy and more people moving to our state it is important to start shifting more goods and people off the roads and onto the rails." 

LeCody said there are several avenues that TxDOT, the Transportation Commission and the legislature could use to apply for competitive federal rail programs. The Rail Relocation and Improvement Fund (Fund 0306) was approved by voters over a decade ago but has remained dormant.

Another means would be for TxDOT and the Transportation Commission to ask the legislature for general funds through an Exceptional Item plea in their Legislative Appropriation Request. It's expected that TxDOT will present their 2026-2027 funding package to the Transportation Commission in August or September this year. 

So far, out of all the federal rail funding during this current period, TxDOT is only scheduled to receive $86 million to fix several at-grade rail crossings and two $500,000 conventional passenger rail corridor study grants, one between Houston and San Antonio and another from Dallas to Houston, via College Station. 

An application for another $500,000 Corridor Identification planning grant between Dallas-Fort Worth and Austin-San Antonio was rejected by the FRA because of errors in the proposal. FRA Chief Bose said that a few conventional passenger rail corridor proposals were rejected because they contained basic errors such as applying for the wrong program, or using the wrong scope, or even filing the wrong application altogether.

Bose said it is important that states and other entities that apply for grants have already started working with property owners, Class 1 railroad hosts, Amtrak and any others that will be key players in any new passenger rail service launches. Bose made those comments at the American Association of State Highway and Transportation  Officials' Council on Rail Transportation meeting in Washington D.C. 

DC-based Rail Passengers’ President and CEO Jim Mathews, also speaking at the event, outlined that association's legislative priorities such as late trains, Amtrak’s new fleet procurement, and working in Congress to prevent the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law’s transformative investments from being merely a one-off investment. RPA worked with key offices in 2021 to help shape and pass the infrastructure law concerning passenger rail priorities

(Click here to see a round up of the funding levels by year for each of the main grant programs.)

Sometime between March and May this year, the FRA is expected to make at least four more Notice of Funding Opportunity (NOFO) announcements which will kick off the next round of federal funding.

  • Consolidated Rail Infrastructure and Safety Improvements (CRISI) grants are expected to open in March for proposals to be received by mid-May. CRISI awards should be announced by the end of this Fiscal Year.
  • The Fiscal 2023-24 Corridor Identification round will open in mid-May with proposals accepted through early August. Those awards probably won't be announced until the end of this year.
  • The next Federal-State Partnership grant program announcement, that would affect any major Texas projects like the Amtrak/Texas Central high-speed rail project, is expected by the end of September, closing in mid-December. That would put the announcement sometime in early to mid 2025.
  • Finally, grant availability under the Restoration & Enhancement program, which could include turning the tri-weekly Amtrak Sunset Limited into a daily train service in Texas, should be announced in March and close in early June with announcements this fall. 

In 2022 TxDOT got only 0.02% of over $368 million in Consolidated Rail Infrastructure and Safety Improvements (CRISI) grants for rail projects.

TxDOT has not been forthcoming, so far, with any announcements on how they will participate, if at all, in any of the upcoming Notices of Funding Opportunities. 

Photo credit: Texas Rail Advocates