Saturday, January 22, 2005

Texas lags in rail

Texas lags other regions in rail

Saturday, January 22, 2005
Tony Hartzel
Dallas Morning News,Copyright 2005

Four years ago, federal officials gave a name – but no money – to the new South Central High-Speed Rail Corridor running through the economic and population center of Texas.

Since then, the rail line remains the only one of 11 specially designated corridors nationwide with no state or federal funding. Little has changed on the Y-shaped corridor, which runs south from Little Rock, Ark., and Oklahoma City, converges in Dallas and heads south to San Antonio.

Other areas of the country, including the Southeast and the West Coast, have a head start on Texas, and their systems are either in the works or up and running, said Peter LeCody, president of Texas Rail Advocates, a Dallas-based group that lobbies for improved passenger and freight rail service.

In the Southeast, "they're moving along with commuter rail pretty well," said Mr. LeCody. "We're kicking dust down here."

Virginia, Georgia, Florida and the Carolinas received their high-speed rail corridor designation in 1992. The service, envisioned as an alternative to highway and air travel for distances of 100 to 500 miles, could begin service as early as 2010.

Texas Rail Advocates will host a one-day seminar Friday at Dallas/Fort Worth International Airport to draw attention to the need.

"We hope to enlist mayors, counties, chambers of commerce and others to build a groundswell of support and say to Congress that we want this funded," said Paul Mangelsdorf, a member of the Texas Rail Advocates board.

In Texas, the earliest that track improvements could begin is 2010, but noticeable changes including passenger rail service probably won't occur until 2020, Mr. LeCody said.

"If we could develop this in Texas, it would help in social ways and economic ways, as well," he said, noting that better rail service could take tractor-trailers off highways.

Rather than build new rail lines, the goal of a high-speed rail corridor is to improve existing tracks to allow freight and possibly passenger trains to travel at speeds up to 110 mph.

The designation does not mean that bullet trains, which were a contentious topic about 10 years ago, will be coming to Texas.

Most Texas rail lines feature only a single track and have numerous street crossings. Money that comes with the high-speed rail corridor designation would allow the state to build a parallel track in some areas or build elevated crossings that eliminate the need for slower speeds around traffic.

But rail supporters face obstacles to improved rail service in Texas. First, there is no organized effort to get federal money. That effort should begin with the Texas Department of Transportation, Mr. LeCody said.

"We have all these different voices right now. Everyone is running in circles right now trying to grab what federal money is available," he said. "Everything could be funneled through one source."

The state transportation department also is working with a consortium to build the Trans-Texas Corridor, which could feature its own rail projects. Although plans from corridor developer Cintra do not include heavy rail investment until 2025 or later, the state is looking at other possibilities, said Ric Williamson, chairman of the Texas Transportation Commission Chairman. The state may use part of a $1.2 billion payment from Cintra to develop train service.

"Most of the market is in high-speed passenger rail from D/FW to San Antonio," but that doesn't mean bullet trains, Mr. Williamson said.

In addition, the state transportation department has recognized the need for improved rail connections in Texas, and it is seeking more money and rail authority from the Legislature this year.

Nationwide, a growing system of regional rail lines could eventually allow for improved national passenger train service, Mr. LeCody said.

"When you connect all the regional rails, in essence you have developed a national corridor," he said.

Tony Hartzel can be reached at and at P.O. Box 655237, Dallas, Texas 75265.

Ric Williamson: "We damn sure aren't going to sit on it."

State may boost budget for roads by $4.6 billion

Austin American-Statesman
Copyright 2005

The Texas Department of Transportation would see a 43 percent increase in the state's next two-year budget cycle, according to the Legislative Budget Board's 2006-07 spending plan.

According to that proposed budget, subject to tinkering before the Legislature passes a final appropriations bill this spring and the governor signs it, the Transportation Department would spend $15.1 billion in the two years starting Oct. 1. According to the budget for the current biennium, the agency was expected to spend $10.5 billion.

That two-year jump of $4.6 billion represents about a quarter of the $16 billion spending increase anticipated by the budget board's 2006-07 spending plan, this from a department with less than 10 percent of the overall state budget.

The picture is more complicated than those numbers would make it appear, transportation officials say. They point out that actual spending in 2004-05, thanks primarily to an acceleration of how the state collects federal transportation grants, will be $12.2 billion rather than the anticipated $10.5 billion.

Using that apples-to-pomegranates comparison, the increase would be only 24 percent. But that's still well above the 13.5 percent spending increase anticipated for the state overall in 2006-07. And it comes when the Legislature is expected to be scratching for ways to put more money into social services, public schools and salary increases for state workers.

State Rep. Mike Krusee, R-Williamson County, chairman of the House Transportation Committee, said comparing the transportation budget's growth to that of general government likewise means setting disparate fruit side-by-side. The transportation budget is overwhelmingly supported by gasoline taxes, federal and state, with tax rates that haven't changed in more than a decade, and by methods of borrowing money created in 2003 that did not require raising taxes.

Anticipated spending for the Texas Mobility Fund in 2006-07, a new stash of cash that will be borrowed on the bond markets and paid back by motor vehicle fees -- along with money to be borrowed against future gasoline tax revenue -- represent about $1.9 billion of that new money. And federal grants would go up about $2.4 billion from the predicted 2004-05 amount.

"It's not as if we're taking it out of the education pie," Krusee said. "I would not want it to be seen as state policymakers valuing one area more than another."

The possibility exists that the current state of transportation plenty could ebb in coming years. That change in how the U.S. government sends money back to the state -- paying for the first 80 percent of projects rather than 80 percent of each individual segment -- will create only a temporary bump in that money stream. After that, the annual increase in federal transportation grants will return to a more measured pace. And the Texas Mobility Fund, at least for now, is expected to generate only $3 billion, money that could be exhausted by 2009 or so. But for now, road building will see an undeniable boom in Texas .

According to figures from the Transportation Department, about half of its budget in 2003 and 2004, or about $2.6 billion a year, went to planning, right-of-way purchases and construction of new or expanded roads. That will grow to $3.6 billion this year and then to $4.5 billion next year. And that doesn't count money borrowed on the private market that would be paid back by toll road revenue, such as the $2.2 billion in bonds sold for the three roads in the Central Texas Turnpike Project or the $6 billion that Spanish toll road operator Cintra Concesiones de Infraestructures de Transportes S.A. says it will spend on the Trans -Texas Corridor 's Interstate 35 alternative road.

Taking that money into account, as well as the department's budget spike and any road investments by toll road agencies in Dallas and Houston or regional mobility authorities, Texas could see an extra $20 billion of highway and railroad construction in the next five to 10 years.

Texas Transportation Commission Chairman Ric Williamson, a former member of the Legislature, said he hopes education and social services can find the needed money. He even said the transportation community would be open to shouldering some of that fiscal burden. But he said it's wrong to spin the transportation budget as any sort of negative.

"My perspective on this is that TxDOT doesn't have a lot of money, the state of Texas is going to get a lot of roads," Williamson said. "Because we damn sure aren't going to sit on it."; 445-3698

Copyright (c) 2005 Austin American-Statesman

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Tuesday, January 18, 2005

Trans-Texas Corridor Roadblock?

Trans-Texas Corridor running into a roadblock?

Monday, January 17, 2005
By Jason Whitely / KHOU 11 News, Copyright 2005

If everything's said to be bigger in Texas, this next story could certainly prove that.

The state is preparing to create a new highway stem that would take 50 years to build and cost $175 billion.

It's the cost that's keeping a lot of people on the side of the road about what may be our future.

It's no secret that Texas is in a jam -- a traffic jam.

Freeways are overcrowded and the state can't afford to build new ones. It can barely maintain the ones we have.

"We're a state of 21 million people. We're going to grow to at least 35-40 million people. Where are we going to put those people with the congestion we have today?" asked TxDOT's Deputy Executive Director, Steve Simmons.

TxDOT wants to put them on a new highway system. The Trans-Texas Corridor would be the biggest of its kind in the country.

The plan is for 4,000 miles of roads for cars, trucks, pipelines, and high-speed rail, designed to relieve congestion.

"Our citizens are wanting and demanding improvements in that and we can't continue to expand on the existing footprint that we have," said Simmons.

Financing the project is the tricky part. The state will take thousands of acres of land by eminent domain then lease it out to private companies. They'll build and maintain each section of the corridor. Texas will own the land and the highway, but corporations will make money, too.

A Spanish company called Cintra won the first deal to build a stretch of the corridor from San Antonio to Dallas, parallel to I-35. To recoup its construction costs, Cintra gets to charge tolls for the next 50 years.

"It's not something communities or companies in Texas were clamoring for. It doesn't solve the problem of congestion in urban areas," said David Stall,

In fact, according to Stall, it won't even go into urban areas. The corridor will just skirt around them.

Stall is a vocal critic of the project and runs a Web site called

"This is a project of the Governor. It was ramrodded by the Governor. It was sold as being good for Texas transportation. And there wasn't much investigation done of it," said Stall.

Opponents are now trying to repeal the bill in Austin.

Even Governor Perry's own political party, the state GOP, opposes it in its platform, saying, "Because there are issues of confiscation of private land... and other similar concerns, the Party urges the repeal of HB 3588 authorizing the Trans-Texas Corridor."

The Texas Farm Bureau is against it, too, fearing it would split farms, making fields difficult to access since the toll road is designed to have few exits.

"It's going to help those in the big urban areas get from Point A to Point Z and bypass B to Y. Those points will just be visions out their window," said Stephen Gertson, farmer.

Wharton County commissioners don't like the idea either, worrying the county's gas stations and restaurants won't generate as much tax dollars since the toll road will have its own services. That's a concern a lot of towns share. "I've never seen a town dry up because a relief route was built. I think it's important to understand our roads are still going to connect to the Trans-Texas Corridor," said Simmons.

But most every opponent points to the Camino Colombia Toll Road. It was built in Laredo in 1997 to reduce truck traffic in town. Only problem is trucks didn't use it. Hardly anyone did.

The toll road couldn't make money. Lenders finally had to foreclose.

TxDOT said Camino Colombia was a failure because it was entirely private and didn't have the experience the state is planning to bring to this project.

For now, the exact route of the Trans-Texas Corridor still hasn't been decided and construction may not begin until the end of the decade.

Opposition to the project is starting to grow, as is the number of vehicles crowding onto Texas freeways.

TxDOT said it will start holding meetings around Houston soon.

TXDOT tells us relief for the I-35 corridor is most important.

Another stretch from Texarkana, through Houston, to the Rio Grande Valley will be built next.

Opponents still hope to put the brakes on the massive project during this legislative session.