I-35 Corridor passenger rail plan due out soon Heartland Flyer Fort Worth to Oklahoma service could be up for grabs Beaumont railroad bridge and Laredo freight traffic bottlenecks in rail division sights
Within the next several months a long awaited I-35 Corridor passenger rail development plan is to be unveiled by the Texas Department of Transportation Rail Division. Erik Steavens, Rail Division Director, said that once the report is issued it's up to the mayors, councils, municipal planning organizations and advocates on or near I-35 from Oklahoma through the DFW area, Austin, San Antonio to the Rio Grande Valley to decide how badly they want or need passenger rail service in the busy corridor.
Steavens, speaking at the 12th annual Southwestern Rail Conference in Dallas, said that TxDOT does not have the funding or the state constitutional ability to plow any money into passenger rail so it's up to a grass roots movement to ratchet up the need. "Our constitutional authority allows TxDOT to build roads and bridges but not freight or passenger rail projects. It's going to be up to local officials to empower options for high speed rail or other rail means," according to Steavens. The environmental impact statement is due out this spring on what had previously been called TOPRS (Texas Oklahoma Passenger Rail Study).
Concerning the daily Amtrak service between Fort Worth and Oklahoma handled under a joint TxDOT / ODOT operating agreement Steavens said that one round trip a day "just doesn't work right." The Heartland Flyer has plateaued out at the 70,000+ passengers a year mark and what is needed is an additional service to balance the needs of daily travelers, according to Steavens. Under federal legislation that was supposed to help states with corridor passenger rail service the reverse has happened, creating what Steavens calls "a barrier for innovation". He said that what we asked from Amtrak was to provide two trains for the price of what we are now paying for one. With Amtrak funding constrained for state-supported corridor service "we will be putting out a Request for Proposals" in the first quarter of this year for innovative service delivery from other providers.
Steavens indicated he has started talks with Amtrak to look at extending their longer distance services to bring more choices for Texans. The cost of adding multi-state trains toward New Orleans or the East Coast would not be borne by the state of Texas since Amtrak is responsible for routes over 750 miles long. There are some early indications that the cost of lengthening existing services would have a positive effect on Amtrak's revenue share and boost ridership. One attendee at the Southwestern Rail Conference pointed to the Amtrak Crescent which runs from New Orleans to New York through Meridian Mississippi. There had been proposals to extend a section of the train across Louisiana and Texas to Dallas and Fort Worth at one time, but plans did not gel.
Steavens pointed to rail advocates that there are some methods other states have taken advantage of for rail projects that Texas has not. "Texas does not have an State Infrastructure Bank" that could be used for all kinds of transportation projects including freight and passenger rail. Other states have tax incentives for short line railroads to help boost the economy in their region and we have a state CDA (Comprehensive Development Agreement) now in place that by removing six words could change the code and be positive for rail projects.
On the freight rail side Steavens said that private railroads have invested several billion dollars in capital intensive infrastructure improvements in recent years in Texas. One example of working together was the Tower 55 Public-Private Partnership in Fort Worth, described as the worst at-grade choke point in the Western U.S.
By being a facilitator "we are working to improve the 100 year old Beaumont bridge where three railroads cross. We are leveraging state and federal study money to improve this bottleneck across the Neches River that causes freight train delays throughout the state", according to Steavens. Another area being looked at are the rail crossings in Laredo where traffic bottlenecks at the international rail crossings are all too common.
At the state-owned South Orient Railroad in West Texas "a $26 million dollar state grant has resulted in a three to four time multiplier in benefits. The railroad went from several thousand to 26,000 carloads of gravel, sand and other commodities a year taking thousands of trucks off of West Texas roads", according to Steavens.