November 6, 2018 - TRA Newswire -

Stakeholders comment on rail needs in Texas

Public meeting will update state Rail Plan


The Texas Department of Transportation intends to host a public meeting on Tuesday, December 11 in Austin to present a broad outline of the Texas Rail Plan, which is required by the Federal Railroad Administration. The state rail plan is updated periodically so that when and if federal funds become available for rail projects, TxDOT can apply for those sources of revenue.

The meeting will be an open house style format with a presentation and a survey, where the public will be able to share their thoughts on the future of passenger and freight rail in Texas.

The public meeting will be held on the TxDOT Campus at 200 E. Riverside in Austin from 4 to 6pm on Tuesday, December 11.

In a previous meeting of freight and passenger rail stakeholders, the TxDOT Rail Division received important feedback and ideas on how rail can play an important part in the future direction of travel modes and in the movement of freight by rail. Texas Rail Advocates was a stakeholder in both a freight and a passenger rail listening session.

Participants in the freight rail plan meeting outlined needs, goals and priorities in these comments:

Shain Eversley (HGAC) stated an interest on road/railroad interface projects; would like freight modeling to compare alternatives
Allison Blazosky (AAMPO) asked that staff and stakeholders are provided opportunities to be involved during the planning and project prioritization process. She would appreciate advancement of findings in the Central Texas Grade Crossing study and other projects to study public benefits of rail and rail-highway grade crossing projects.
Bruce Mann (Port of Houston) noted that the state lacks a program to invest in the rail network and called for improved decision making for transportation investments with the public’s money. Invest in projects that have more economic impact. Is SORR improvement the right project for public funds? State should look at funding projects that promote modal conversion; no shippers present, need their input.
Peter Espy (TxDOT) expressed the importance of our comments today, and that they will be heard as part of the public record. He reiterated that TxDOT cannot lobby for projects. If you want to have a project included, say it now. The key value of this group is the act of participating. TxDOT recognizes a divergence of interests in the room.
Brenda Mainwaring (UP) stated that there is a clear focus from TxDOT administration on congestion/clear lanes, but a lack of investment in freight rail projects to help achieve congestion relief. Better benefit measurements of improvements to freight rail would clear a path to fund some of these projects. If we can measure freight rail benefits, that would be a step in the right direction.
Paul Cristina (BNSF) is interested in furthering conversations as part of the Metroplex Freight Mobility Study, the Houston Freight Rail Study, the Border Trade Advisory Committee, and the process of optimizing efficiencies at the border. These rail improvement plans are all important to the state, considering how much it costs to maintain roadway growth. We need to look at how other states fund freight rail; policy points important to mention in state rail plan; wanted minutes from Passenger Stakeholder meeting distributed.
Peter Le Cody (Texas Rail Advocates) supports a new advocacy effort to secure more of the non-highway transportation funding for rail. We should identify the top 10 rail projects around the state, update yearly/bi-annually; build coalition. The state needs dedicated funding for non-highway projects.
Paul Treangen (TNW) discussed the economic importance of how short lines provide rural connectivity; 286K issues; the importance of the rail network; and that short lines need to work with Class 1 partners to improve these measures. He mentioned that TxDOT could support short line grant applications and concepts of funding options modeled by other states (look at other DOTs); He also requested a strengthened rail division within TxDOT to implement the plan. He also noted that there are short line projects missing from the original FAC list. We need to compare the TxDOT list with the original to be sure we have everything.
Jeff Van Schaick (GWR) mentioned that Texas is in the minority for funding for short lines and TxDOT needs to initiate or help implement a model for this, whether it’s grants or tax incentives.
Laura McNichol ( Watco) expressed need for a policy statement for Texas to invest in freight rail infrastructure; it should be spelled act and acted upon. This would be much more valuable than what we’re currently doing. She would like to see an overview of what other states are doing with specific amounts; need to understand that Texas is behind compared to other states, other states see rail as an economic development tool. We should lay out the options for all to see: competitive grant programs, tax credits, and how they have value for tax payers. She also emphasized that while the past state plans have narrowed lists of projects, the short lines want all of their projects listed so funding agencies and the legislature can see all that is needed.
Loretta Brown (TxDOT) gave an update on the TxDOT Freight Advisory Committee initiatives: we’re about to immerse ourselves in stakeholder feedback, boil down the “checklist”, review the top priorities and make sure we’re on the same page with the checklist items, but also have the complete list for backup for policy, hoping to come up with the valid/agreed upon checklist and performance metrics for policy and updates
Mike Johnson (NCTCOG) noted the need to plan and preserve land near freight infrastructure so we can keep growing, maintaining ROW, and make sure railways have the ROW. He expressed the need for this state rail plan and the state freight rail plan to be in harmony, updates need to happen together and not conflict with one another.
Jeff Hathcock (NCTOG) stated that freight funding is critical (and lacking) to short lines operating in the state, capacity constraints in strategic locations in his area
Maureen Crocker (Gulf Coast Rail District) expressed that TxDOT’s project development process needs to be multimodal, it needs to look at synergistic projects and ideas (I-45 project, impacting rail lines with updates to roadway, flurry at the last minute because it wasn’t on the TxDOT checklist to engage the railroad division earlier). The state needs to adopt a multimodal development process.
Nirav Ved (CAMPO) stated that we need to identify priorities and advance projects, such as those identified in the Central Texas Freight Rail Crossing Study.
Barbara Koslov (Harris County) stated that moving freight is multimodal and we need to make all the roadways work together, interact with freight activities. We need to study more possibilities to take freight off the road and put it on rail, and ask if we are moving freight in the most effective/efficient way.
Casey Wells (TxDOT) mentioned that the TxDOT Freight and International Trade office will continue to support the rail stakeholders and the rail division. They are ramping up a freight infrastructure design study and a few other studies will be introduced soon.
Tim Juarez (TxDOT) noted that the Texas Border Master Plan is looking at all 28 ports of entry from a multimodal perspective, with an intermodal connectivity component. A lot of this effort is going to be driven by bi-national stakeholders and reliance on data to support objectives.
Salvador Gonzalez Ayala (El Paso MPO) had a main concern of ports of entry; rail only crosses border during limited times – need more. Consider previous work on rail bypass into NM.

Participants in the passenger rail plan meeting outlined needs, goals and priorities in these comments:

Mike Stolzman of Trinity Metro stated that they have 21 miles of new railroad from downtown Fort Worth to DFW.  He said they are looking at opportunities on shared asset with DART and Trinity Rail Express (TRE). He stated they have some funding from FRA to double some of the tracks. Mike said these are in the 0-4 year short-term category and they have nothing particular in the longer-term category.  He stated they currently have eight train sets and may increase headways to have more frequent service.

Chad Edwards of Dallas Area Rapid Transit (DART) stated the following:

Cotton Belt Project recently received Board approval for the service plan amendment. They are finalizing the EIS and will be up and running in December 2022. It is a 26 mile corridor with 9 stations and runs between DFW Airport to Plano. The project is on track and is a $1.1 billion project. DART owns all the ROW, but a lot of environmental mitigation is needed (sound walls, vibration walls). There is an opportunity for cross corridor service between Trinity Metro and DART.
On the Light Rail side, D2 Subway is planned in downtown Dallas, 2.4 miles with one mile of tunnel under downtown Dallas, the cost is over $1 billion. They are starting environmental documentation and should wrap up in two years. Anticipating service in Dec. 2024.
On other projects, platform extensions for red and blue lines to accommodate 3-car trains. Working on FFGA - downtown Dallas streetcar linking McKinney Ave. Trolley to modern streetcar on south side.
North Central Texas Council of Governments (NCTOG) has a long range plan and need to keep this in mind while working on the rail plan should funding become available and are able to access those corridors.

TRE stated they are joint owned between Trinity Metro and DART. They work a quarter mile to mile at a time. They are working on improvements for double tracking turnout and signal enhancements. TRE stated it is slowly but surely coming along. They are also trying to get to the Cotton Belt connection

For short-term, Amtrak is exploring options for high-speed portion of station in DFW area – seeing what works best for the customer.

DART stated that NCTCOG has an LRTP with a lot of rail miles identified for future passenger service and should include the information in the Rail Plan.

Judge Anderson noted that In San Antonio, UP pulled out of Lone Star Rail effort and there is no resurrection of that effort.

In the Houston/Gulf Coast area, Luke Bathurst stated there is a lot of discussion on rail options. It was noted that there are plans in place, with connections to potential high speed service. Peter LeCody, Texas Rail Advocates, said to make sure light rail lines are mentioned in the plan, because rail has really helped connect the city and there are a lot of passenger rail opportunities.

For El Paso, Luke noted that there is a street car system coming online soon.                                    

Eric Hosey of Amtrak stated that for short-term efforts they are striking up conversation about daily service on Sunset Limited from LA to New Orleans and beyond. He said they need assistance on station in San Antonio - current station footprint not suitable for the amount of passengers they have. Eric said they are having ongoing conversations with the Mayor and VIA. They are exploring an additional station in Flatonia, and I-20 corridor. Their focus is on short-term. They are looking for extensions for the Heartland Flyer. Need funding to maintain service. Peter LeCody noted that for Sunset Limited, the Houston mayor expressed support for daily service and that most cities are working on letters of support.

Todd Stennis, Amtrak, said it is critical for the State to take the lead and let them know what they want to do. Amtrak is the service provider. He said that the states usually come to Amtrak and tell them what they want for intercity passenger rail. Peter Espy, TxDOT, stated that Texas has not traditionally been very involved in intercity passenger rail. He stated that there is a lot of concern about growth and congestion, but there is no large scale plan or strategy for rail planning. He said they need support from a local level to move things forward. Peter LeCody noted there has been grassroots interest in Austin-San Antonio service, as well as more frequency on the Heartland Flyer.

Judge Anderson said that the I-20 corridor service could be accomplished for relatively reasonable cost - cheaper than adding lanes on I-20. He said that between Atlanta and DFW, Amtrak is currently studying fares and internal resources. Christina Anderson noted that it is so important for rural towns to have access to Amtrak, to connect to the major urban centers.

Todd Stennis of Amtrak emphasized the need to factor in the state’s involvement. He said there is definitely an infrastructure requirement, and the state will need to be a partner from a funding perspective. For grants, they need a 50% or better match. He said Class 1’s should not be left out of the equation in terms of funding partners, since many of the gains go to the owner or the corridor.

Travis Kelly, Texas Central Rail, said they have an agreement with Amtrak and have commitments to use stations as well. He said Bryan/College Station will have direct rail service. He noted rural Texans will benefit as well and it is also important to have connectivity to neighboring states. A draft EIS was published in December and it established a build alternative. The final EIS (ROD) will be next year, then hopefully they will start construction soon after. He noted they have been working continually with stakeholders. He stated they closed on a loan up to $300 million, which will get them to financial close. They have purchased about 30% of the ROW needed, and continuing to make offers. They recently brought on a program management consultant and tripled their staffing in Dallas. After financial close, it will probably take another 5 years or so to build, test, etc. In total about 70 facilities - how to tie into BRT? Working with DART in Dallas, working on pedestrian and vehicular access and connection to Amtrak needs to be considered. He said more announcements coming this fall.  Long range vision is Dallas to Houston.

Peter LeCody noted that the TTI corridor study map was not entered in rail plan and perhaps it should be included.

Todd Stennis, Amtrak, said in general that stations and amenities are important. He said Amtrak has found that when a municipality invests in a rail station, it’s not just a transit station, it’s an economic development opportunity. He said there is a definite benefit when there is local investment in the rail station. He said it’s great to think about growth, but you need to have the facilities to support it. He noted that San Antonio and Houston facilities are not designed to handle what’s there today, let alone tomorrow. He said that’s food for thought when prioritizing.

Chad Edwards said that DART’s immediate priority is the Cotton Belt. He said for long-term, Collin County is one of the fastest-growing counties in the region and that some sort of rail service there would be helpful. He noted that on top of that would be the NCTCOG plans for long-term passenger rail service.

Judge Anderson said that the priority for short-term is to implement service between Dallas and Atlanta. He said for long-term, they would like to see it double-tracked. He said many elected officials don’t think rail is important. Maybe they can argue the economic development angle that Todd mentioned.

Christina Anderson stated the short-term priority is I-20 corridor, and underscoring the importance of passenger rail to the rural areas. She staid they’ve found universities and colleges are great partners for passenger rail, in terms of moving students to and from school.

Eric Hosey said for Amtrak short-term it is better frequency and connectivity. He said for long-term, velocity and reliability. He said their on-time performance is not great. That they  need to find a happy medium with keeping freight on time and reliable as well. He said grade separation, double track, etc. are both important - can’t keep jamming more trains on the Class I lines. Todd stated that for short-term, facilities and on-time performance is the need and those are in their grasp. He said for long-term it is frequency and consistency of delivery.

Shain Eversley, HGAC, stated for short-term it is to take a more in-depth look at rail service within urban areas. For long-term, he said better rail service in the TexasX triangle like what they have between DC and Boston.

Mike Stolzman said that Trinity Metro short-term needs are Texas Rail completion and execution, then Phase 2 (southwest extension). He stated long-term, they should have trains running to Arlington – there is no transit in Arlington whatsoever. Chad noted that the votes have failed. It would be helpful to expand at least one of the transit authorities to cover new territory.

Travis Kelly, Texas Central Rail (TCR), said TxDOT’s role in TCR is very limited and well-defined. He said that within 4 years they would be well under construction. I-35 should be a priority for rail service. He said it’s a huge opportunity that shouldn’t be wasted. The triangle vision is still there; the market is there.

Garl Latham, President - Texas Association of Railroad Passengers, stated the U.S. has never developed a cohesive transportation policy. He said it would be nice to create a policy through this planning document. Both short and long-term would need to convince people in authority of the value of passenger rail service. A “grid and gateway” wish list should be developed. Developing longer corridors isn’t about end-to-end travel, it’s about the shorter trips along the way. He said Dallas Union Station is getting the shaft now. Union Station is where all the rail lines come together. It shouldn’t be ignored.

Peter LeCody, Texas Rail Advocates, said that for short-term the need is to increase frequencies on Heartland Flyer and connect to east Coast. He said more Austin-San Antonio service is needed. He said that they need to let the public know that trains are an option. He said that TxDOT website should include information on travel options. Also, need signage to rail stations. He noted that DART does a great job with rail signage. Peter Espy said that there are signage regulations at TxDOT that may affect signage options. Amtrak said they would provide the signs for free. Peter LeCody stated that for long-term, financing is the big thing, and maybe there could be tax incentives. He noted that it is done for bringing in industry, how about doing it for rail? He said maybe TxDOT funding should be available for other modes, through the legislature. Let the public decide.

Christina Anderson noted that when you show people how small the rail funding/subsidy is, it gets their attention. She said we often have to persuade people.