Texas Approves Rail Plan But Passenger Rail Still A Long Ways Off

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(Houston -- Wendy Siegle, KUHF News) The Obama Administration recently gave out $2.4 billion dollars for passenger rail. Some states are desperately vying for federal funding, while others are sending the money back to Washington. The newly elected governors in Wisconsin and Ohio are rejecting their grants because they believe rail will be a burden on tax payers. California, on the other hand, is hoping it can secure enough money for its ambitious plans. Meanwhile, Texas is still trying to position itself to even qualify for major funding.

Texas got $5.6 million out of that last round of rail funding to study a possible line from Oklahoma City to South Texas. The grant isn’t much considering it was just one quarter of one percent of the total funding doled out to states. But the recent approval of the Texas Rail Plan, may help the state's chances of getting a bigger slice of funding in the future. The plan passed unanimously, but it’s only a start.

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Karen Amacker, spokesperson with the Texas Department of Transportation, admits

the rail plan is a more of a broad vision for the state, rather than one that identifies specific route configurations. “We’re not talking about the sort of things like drawing a line on a map to show where you can expect to see for example passenger rail service provided in the future,” she said.

Instead, the 750 page document establishes a number of over-arching priorities for both freight and passenger rail. They include reducing road congestion, improving air quality, promoting economic growth, and creating efficient transportation for the movement of both people and freight.

But as nebulous as the plan may be, Amacker says just having one means the state is closer to establishing a common set of goals for the future of its rail system. Still, if Texas wants to compete for more federal funding it will have to do even more homework. Amacker says there are a number of studies that have to be done, "in order to determine the best location -- where we're getting the best value for our dollar."

Amacker says TxDOT will be carrying out a state-wide ridership study in the coming months. The study will examine city pairs to see which have the greatest ridership potential, such as Houston to Dallas and Dallas to Austin. But they aren’t just looking at major cities; the study will also consider lines from Lubbock to Amarillo and Temple to Houston. Completing this study and others like it will improve the state’s chances of winning money for planning.

Robert Eckels, chairman of an advocacy group that promotes high speed rail, wants the studies done so the private sector will jump on board.  "These systems are very expensive," he argues,  "They’re very capital intensive." And Eckels points out that it’s not just the construction of the rail lines that costs a lot of money, but also the upkeep and operation of the system. "I think that’s why it’s important to do the studies to get it right," he says, "so that we can, to the greatest extent possible, have it pay for itself and attract that private investment.”