February 11, 2005
Freight train relocation

I've been pretty critical of TxDOT lately, so it's nice to be able to single them out for doing something that makes a lot of sense.

Texas transportation officials want $100 million a year to relocate railroad lines that clog traffic in Houston and other urban areas.


Ric Williamson of Weatherford, chairman of the Texas Transportation Commission, which oversees TxDOT, acknowledged it's not going to be easy to ask for more money as the Legislature continues struggling with how to fund public education.

But the commission contends the benefits of rail relocation are so enormous including potentially moving more freight from trucks to trains, which would reduce traffic and wear and tear on state highways that lawmakers have to find the money this year so the process can get started.

The effort has the support of officials in Houston and Texas' other large metropolitan areas, who want freight lines consolidated into grade-separated corridors.

That would speed freight delivery and reduce grade-level railroad crossings that stop traffic and are dangerous to cars, officials say. And rerouting some freight lines could free up urban tracks for passenger service such as commuter rail.

When I mentioned before that Robert Nichols was an effective salesman for TxDOT, it was in part due to his telling me about this plan. The benefit is clear, the price tag is reasonable, and the only way it's ever going to happen is for a state agency like TxDOT to act as the broker. I support this effort wholeheartedly. (The bit in this article about toll roads, not so much, and TTC, not at all. But when they're right, they're right, and I want to give them credit for it.)

On a side note:

John Langmore, a consultant to House Transportation Chairman Mike Krusee, R-Round Rock, said the rail relocation fund will be a high priority but funding will be a challenge.

"These rail lines currently run through urban centers, making their use for other purposes very attractive," Langmore recently told the Houston-Galveston Area Council's Transportation Policy Council. "But that makes it expensive to do anything with that. We are not going to, won't be able to, create new taxes, yet we're looking at $20 billion statewide to deal with all the rail relocations."

Langmore said Krusee intends to draft legislation indexing the state gasoline tax to inflation in the construction industry. The current 20-cent tax 15 cents for transportation and public safety, 5 cents for schools has not been raised since 1991. That means the purchasing power of the gas tax has declined thanks to 14 years of inflation.

"This could potentially be a tough sell, but he's going to pursue that," Langmore said.

It's funny how we talk about property appraisals as "stealth tax increases", but we don't talk about the static gasoline tax as a "stealth tax cut", isn't it? No wonder there's such a push to sell the roads to the highest bidders.

Posted by Charles Kuffner on February 11, 2005 to Planes, Trains, and Automobiles | TrackBack

The notion that state government should generate automatic increases in revenue by mechanisms that tie tax policy to decisions made by the Federal Reserve with regard to the money supply is indeed funny to some of us who believe in popular sovereignty, yes.

I can understand why people who favor greater state spending don't like that arrangement, but they need to take that case to voters. If legislators want more revenues, they need to take that case to voters as well, rather than creating mechanisms that let them avoid it.

Posted by: kevin whited on February 11, 2005 9:55 AM

Cry me a river, Kevin. First, your economics is weak. Federal Reserve decisions certainly affect the inflation rate, but they are hardly the only factor that does so.

Second, your characterization of price indexing as "automatic increases in revenue" is, uh, not generally accepted, to say the least.

Finally, the gasoline tax you pay is avoidable to a much greater extent than, say, a general sales tax. You do have some choice when it comes to where you live and what kind of vehicle you drive.

Posted by: Mathwiz on February 11, 2005 4:16 PM