Route 88.7 Blog: Texas Looks At Passenger Rail To Get Off Highways

 A two-year TxDOT study will determine whether Texas can support a new passenger rail line. The route that's under consideration right now would take passengers from south Texas all the way to Oklahoma City. What TxDOT wants to know is whether travelers would be willing to leave their cars at home if they had the opportunity to take the train.

One of the goals of the $14 million study is to figure out whether passenger rail would alleviate some of the congestion on busy north-south I-35. A four-mile section of I-35 in Fort Worth has been named the most congested freeway in Texas. The highway also experiences heavy delays in San Antonio and Austin.

Figures show more people these days are riding the rails. Amtrak says it carried about 31 million passengers in fiscal year 2012. That's a three-and-a-half percent increase from the year before. Officials say ridership on state-supported and short-distance routes was up by a little over two percent.

As for current passenger service in Texas, there's the Heartland Flyer between Fort Worth and Oklahoma City. The Texas Eagle runs from Chicago to Los Angeles, passing through Dallas-Fort Worth, Austin, San Antonio, and El Paso. The Sunset Limited stops in several Texas cities on its east-west route between New Orleans and California. Now officials are considering an 800-mile rail line that would go directly to Oklahoma from the Rio Grande Valley. TxDOT says if it eventually builds the route, it could become the foundation for a line that would connect all the major metropolitan areas in Texas.

Peter LeCody with Texas Rail Advocates says more asphalt and concrete won't solve the state's traffic problems, and it's time to look at multi-modal solutions. He believes getting any amount of traffic off the highways will be a huge help. LeCody says, "If it's five percent, ten percent, twenty percent of traffic that can be diverted, that not only increases the life span of our roadways from wear and tear and accidents, but also gives people a transportation choice as well."

And it's not just getting passenger traffic off the freeways. LeCody says, "You need to look at the freight traffic as well. If we can move, say, five percent or ten percent of the truck traffic off our roads, that also increases the life span of our roads."

One of the things the study will look at is whether new passenger service can share the same rails with freight trains, but LeCody says the state might be able to construct new tracks alongside existing rail. He says, "Most of the railroad right-of-way right now is about 100 feet wide. The average track at this point takes up about 20, 30, 40 feet. So in many parts of this corridor it shouldn't be a big logistical challenge."

Another rail advocate weighing in on the study is Henry Wulff with the Texas Association of Rail Passengers, who believes funding will be a major consideration. Wulff says, "All forms of mass transportation, whether it's highways, airports, or whatever, have large amounts of government funding and tax dollars in order to make them viable. And that would be the same with improving trains or bringing new train service."

Planning a new rail line will also take effort from multiple levels of government, and University of St. Thomas Political Science Professor Jon Taylor says officials will have to justify the expense of building the line. Taylor the question they'll have to ask is, "Are the ticket prices that somebody would pay, from say Austin to Oklahoma City, would that be relatively equal to an airline on the same route?"

And if the railroad line is built, will passengers actually ride it? Taylor ventures a guess. He says, "Add another dollar to the price of gas per gallon and you might get people warming up more to the idea."

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