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Alignments proposed for Oklahoma City-South Texas passenger rail

Check ’em out.

TexasOklahomaPassengerRailStudyRoutes

The U.S. Department of Transportation’s (DOT) Federal Railroad Administration (FRA) and the Texas Department of Transportation (TxDOT) have released 10 service and route options for new and improved conventional and high-speed passenger rail service connecting Oklahoma City, Fort Worth, Austin, San Antonio, and South Texas.  The options are evaluated in a Draft Environmental Impact Statement (DEIS).

“This corridor is home to major financial, energy, and education centers that people rely on every day,” said U.S. Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx.  “Providing efficient, more reliable, and faster higher-speed passenger rail options to move between cities is crucial for the economy and the population to thrive.  I encourage those along the I-35 corridor to participate in the comment and public hearing opportunities so that they are able to learn more and share their input.”

During a 45-day public comment period, FRA and TxDOT will take comments on the 10 options and the seven recommended preferred options that the two agencies identified.  Four public hearings will also be held to give residents a chance to learn about the Texas-Oklahoma Passenger Rail Study, understand how their communities may be affected, and provide comments.

Current passenger rail service along the Interstate 35 (I-35) corridor includes three intercity Amtrak services from Oklahoma City to Fort Worth (Heartland Flyer), Fort Worth to San Antonio (Texas Eagle), and Los Angeles to New Orleans through San Antonio (Sunset Limited).

The DEIS addresses the relationships of the major regional markets within the Texas-Oklahoma Passenger Rail Program corridor in three geographic sections, and preferred alternatives are recommended for each geographic section separately.  The three sections of study are:

  • Northern Section:  Edmond, Oklahoma, to Dallas and Fort Worth, Texas
  • Central Section:  Dallas and Fort Worth to San Antonio
  • Southern Section:  San Antonio to south Texas (Corpus Christi, Brownsville, Laredo, and the Rio Grande Valley)

More than 10 million people currently live along the 850-mile corridor, which is expected to grow by 39 percent in Texas and 25 percent in Oklahoma City by 2035.  As a state with some of the largest metropolitan areas in the nation, spread out over hundreds of miles, Texas is now in high demand for alternative modes of transportation.  Since the majority of the state’s population is centered in the eastern half of state, along I-35 stretching into Oklahoma City, the highways have experienced increased congestion.

“More passenger rail service will help relieve already congested roads along the I-35 corridor and help this region manage the significant population growth on the way,” said FRA Administrator Sarah E. Feinberg.  “I encourage everyone to provide feedback on the 10 options that FRA and the Texas DOT have presented to continue moving this effort forward.”

In fiscal year 2012, FRA awarded a $5.6 million grant to TxDOT to fund a study of new and improved passenger rail service to meet future intercity travel demand, improve rail facilities, reduce travel times, and improve connections with regional public transit services as an alternative to bus, plane, and private auto travel.  The Texas-Oklahoma Passenger Rail Study evaluates routes and types of service for passenger rail service between Oklahoma City, Dallas, Austin, San Antonio, and South Texas.

More information about the Texas-Oklahoma Passenger Rail Study can be found here.  The Final EIS is projected to be released by early 2017.

There are three public hearings scheduled to discuss these alignments, on August 9, 10, and 11, in Laredo, Austin, and Arlington, respectively. Relevant documentation is here if you have a few hours to spare and an enjoyment of poring over PDFs, while TxDOT’s page on the project is here. Just looking at the map, which I have embedded above, doesn’t give a clear picture of where the tracks would be. Streetsblog says it wouldn’t actually stop in “urban Austin”, but the map seems to indicate it would go near or by the airport, so perhaps this is a question of terminology.

This project has been kicking around for awhile – Oklahoma got a federal stimulus grant in 2009 to study rail between Oklahoma City and Tulsa, which isn’t actually part of this proposal but may have been the genesis of what we now have – with TxDOT creating the Texas-Oklahoma Passenger Rail Study page in late 2013; as you can see at that link, there’s a separate project to link this rail line, if it happens, to the Houston-Dallas high speed line, if that happens. An extension into Mexico has also been floated, though I have no idea if we’re even allowed to say that sort of thing out loud any more. As this is a TxDOT project, one presumes that there won’t be any questions about whether or not this qualifies as a real railroad for eminent domain purposes, which is not to say that there won’t be any resistance to the possibility. I’m never sure how seriously to take this, as TxDOT has never been all that interested in anything but roads and there are plenty of ways for the chuckleheads in Congress and the Lege to put up obstacles, but we are at the DEIS stage, and that’s progress. What do you think? See here for the impact statement, and KVUE has more.

Jay Aiyer: Consider a local option for pre-k

Note: From time to time, I solicit guest posts from various individuals on different topics. While I like to think I know a little something about a lot of things, I’m fortunate to be acquainted with a number of people who know a whole lot about certain topics, and who are willing to share some of that knowledge here.

Pre-K education has emerged as the most hotly debated issue in this year’s race for Governor. Both Senator Davis and Attorney General Abbott have laid out competing proposals to provide pre-k education in Texas, with dueling press conferences and accusations flying back and forth.

What Pre-K seeks to do is to eliminate what education researchers have recognized as the single biggest impediment to improving public education—the literacy gap. For years we have been aware that because of income and parental education disparity, children from lower socio-economic backgrounds begin school at a significant disadvantage. We know that a child that reads at grade level by the end of 3rd grade has over a 95% chance of graduating from high school. When you consider the close correlation between high school graduation and the rate of poverty—you can see that the development of an effective Pre-K program in Texas has the potential of significantly reducing poverty in a generation.

While there are merits to both Davis and Abbott’s respective plans, it’s what they are missing that is most telling.

Funding
You simply can’t have an effective Pre-K system without a funding mechanism in place. Our current K-12 system is itself woefully underfunded and the object of litigation. The idea of proposing an expansion of education without addressing the underlying financial problems that exist in K-12 renders any plan proposed nonsense. You have to get the funding right.

Infrastructure
Private and religious schools largely provide Pre-K in Texas. Several ISDs have a limited Pre-K program, but the vast majority does not. In order to expand Pre-K through the ISD system, it would require a significant capital expenditure on a scale not previously seen. Buildings have to be built and that itself could be billions in additional costs.

Implementation
Every study that has been done on Pre-K recognizes that its impact is only significant if the program is comprehensive and structured educationally. State government has repeatedly shown that when it comes to the development and implementation of specific educational programs, they have done more harm than good. Rather than a large state program—local governments are better suited to making Pre-K work.

So what should we do?

The most effective Pre-K systems nationally, have been locally driven and locally controlled. Tulsa, Oklahoma is the national leader in Pre-K and has had the most effective program. San Antonio’s local initiative has also been widely praised for its approach. While applauding Davis and Abbott for their focus on Pre-K, I would argue that if they really wanted a program to be successful—develop a funding system through a local authorization process, and let city/county governments lead the way. Austin has repeatedly proven it is unable to solve big problems. It’s time to try a different approach.

Jay K. Aiyer is an Assistant Professor of Public Policy at the Barbara Jordan-Mickey Leland School of Public Affairs. He served on the Board of Trustees for the Houston Community College System from 2000-2008 and served as Chief of Staff to Mayor Lee P. Brown from 1998-2000.

Oklahoma gets on the SUPERTRAIN

Welcome aboard!

The Oklahoma Department of Transportation said Friday it has taken an initial step to apply for high-speed rail funding that, if successful, could return passenger service to Tulsa.

ODOT spokeswoman Terri Angier said top speeds between Tulsa and Oklahoma City would be more than 150 mph with an average speed of more than 110 mph.

Top speeds for the Heartland Flyer, which provides servicefrom Oklahoma City to Texas, would be 90 mph, with an average of more than 60 mph.

The Heartland Flyer now can travel only up to 79 mph, but the speed is lower on much of that route.

A cost estimate for the project, which would include improvements from Tulsa to the Texas state line, has been put at just under $2 billion.

This would be part of the South Central Corridor that also includes the Texas T-bone and Little Rock, Arkansas. Nice to see the other states involved are doing their part. I hope their prospects for getting the funding are better than ours.