Texas Aims to Get State-Wide Rail Back on Track

In the glory days of the passenger locomotive, hopping on a train was the fastest way for Americans to travel between cities. Now, trains predominately ferry goods, not people. But the Obama Administration has been fighting to bring rail back into the business of moving passengers. And after losing big time earlier this year on federal funding for high speed rail, Texas is playing catch up. Bill Glavin is the director of TxDOT's rail division. He's developing a state-wide plan that aims to improve both passenger and freight rail. He was in Houston this week leading the first of ten public meetings being held across Texas.

"We've been told that till we have a state rail plan, until we perform certain studies, from a passenger standpoint, we won't qualify for various funding opportunities that the federal government is putting out."

Glavin says it was the lack of a single, unified vision that caused Washington to give Texas a miss on the bulk of the cash. Securing federal dollars is crucial if Texas wants a comprehensive rail network. Ninety-two percent of TxDOT's entire budget is spent on highways. That leaves just eight percent for everything else.

"We're looking for people's comments, their ideas, their thoughts as to what they think is necessary for the state of Texas to be doing in regard to transportation in the future, whether it should be a focus on freight, if there should be a focus on passenger."

Some people at the meeting vented their frustrations with the absence of travel options; others wanted clarification on possible high-speed rail corridors both in Texas and across the nation. Wesley Krueger was at the meeting. He says there's a reason why Texans have traditionally been wary of passenger rail.

"Texans are individuals. Give me my truck and let me do my own thing, and it's about time we come together and say, 'Look we're all in a community. We can't continue to pave highways for everybody to drive; we need to find alternative methods.'"

Over twenty questions were fielded at the meeting, none of which focused on freight rail. But since passenger rail will likely run on freight tracks, bringing the discussion of freight rail into the fold is essential. But overlaying passenger rail on existing freight lines is a cause for concern. Texas' freight system has more than 10,800 miles of rail--more than any other state. Glavin acknowledges that putting passenger cars are freight lines could be problematic.

"Unfortunately, the most likely city pairs that we would want to have passenger rail on-Dallas, Fort Worth, Houston, Austin, San Antonio-are also the heaviest density freight corridors within the state as well, if not in the nation. So that makes it difficult, but it doesn't make it impossible."

Glavin says another option would be to build new rail lines, solely for high speed passenger trains. But that would cost a lot. Regardless of the plan Texas comes up with, one thing's for sure: Since most funding options for rail come from the fed, not the state, Texas will have to play by Washington'’s rules if it wants a shot at upgrading its rail system.

From the KUHF NewsLab, I'm Wendy Siegle.


For more information on the rail plan, go to www.txdot.gov/public_involvement/rail_plan/
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