January 16, 2023 - TRA Newswire -

The Wharton County Commissioners Court is the latest government entity in Texas asking state lawmakers to put some state skin in the game to compete for federal rail grants. 

Joshua Owens, Executive Director of the Wharton Economic Development Corporation, spoke before Wharton County Commissioners last Monday before they signed off on a resolution asking state legislators for a "Fair Share For Rail" during the current session. Texas is awash in a budget surplus and many counties, cities, economic development agencies and ports have been urging lawmakers to carve out funding for rail projects. 

"We are advocating for a state allocation for matching funds that can be used for competitive federal rail grants," according to Owens. New and expanded federal rail programs, made possible under the Infrastructure Law passed in 2021 by Congress, would allow the Texas Department of Transportation to distribute rail grants. Projects could range from grade-crossing safety projects to helping attract new rail-centered business for rural cities and towns.

Owens said that grants would mean additional infrastructure support for the rail network. "Rail is an important economic driver for our region." 

Wharton, El Campo and other cities are along an 87-mile stretch of a line between Victoria and Rosenberg that was abandoned in 1985 by the former Southern Pacific Railroad. Kansas City Southern restored service in 2009, allowing commerce to again flow and give the towns and cities incentive to attract new business and industry to the region.   

The mechanism for seeking state rail funding, the Texas Rail Relocation and Improvement Fund, was passed by voters over a decade ago but has not yet received the first dollar of funding. Federal rail programs are mainly distributed on a very competitive basis with states expected to kick in a minimum 20% share to get up to 80% in federal funds. 

The Texas fund would provide a method of financing the relocation and improvement of privately and publicly owned passenger and freight rail facilities to: relieve congestion on public highways, enhance public safety, improve air quality, expand economic opportunity and construct railroad underpasses and overpasses if a part of the relocation of a rail facility.

The fund receives proceeds from bonds and notes and dedications and appropriations made by the legislature.

Photo credit: Matthew Hulman. KCS at Wharton, Texas 2009