A number of signs point to possible success for rail advocates, who for years have been talking up the merits of so-called multimodal transportation planning, but to a mostly unreceptive audience among Texas transportation policymakers.
This month, the U.S. Department of Transportation called for proposals from states and businesses to develop any of 11 federally designated high-speed rail corridors. Proposals are expected across the country, and two of the specified routes run through Texas. One, the Gulf Coast Corridor, enters the state from the southeast and finds its terminus in Houston.
The other route comes in from the north, and runs through Dallas, Austin, San Antonio and more.
No proposals have been made to develop those corridors yet, but U.S. Transportation Secretary Mary Peters was in New York City in recent weeks to urge investors to consider doing just that. The government’s vision is to have private firms partner with state and federal governments to jointly develop the rail lines. Proposals are due by September 2009.
Texas ought to start moving if it wants to take advantage of the federal funds, said Peter LeCody of Texas Rail Advocates, a passenger-rail lobbying group. The federal government is promising an 80-20 match with local or state funds – a nearly unprecedented move for rail, which usually requires a 50 percent contribution from local sources.
Hard to say what if anything may come of this. Certainly, the Obama administration is going to be more interested in exploring and incentivizing transportation initiatives that aren’t just road building and widening. Texas may not be anywhere near the forefront of such thinking, but the allure of federal dollars can make pragmatists, if not converts, of most rail skeptics. And even the Lege seems to be on board with this.
One first step may be as near as January. When lawmakers gather for the 2009 Legislature, one of the many questions they’ll be asked to decide is whether to create a new rail division within the transportation department that could oversee the development of passenger rail lines between Texas’ biggest cities.
Meanwhile, Sen. John Carona, R-Dallas, has introduced a bill that would call a vote next fall on amending the state constitution so that high-speed passenger rail facilities could be exempted from property taxes, another sign that the momentum is rolling in passenger rail’s favor.
So the environment is about as favorable as it’s ever been. If we do wind up with a real Governor’s race, maybe we’ll even have a debate on the issue. In the meantime, I’m glad to hear of the possibilities.