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Proposition One

Prop 2 is the easy one. Proposition One is giving me a headache.

Proposition 1 would amend the Texas Constitution to authorize the creation of the Texas Rail Relocation and Improvement Fund in the state treasury. The Texas Transportation Commission would administer the fund and could issue bonds pledged against it.

The proposal includes no funding, and it doesn’t specify how much should be set aside for the effort.

If voters approve the amendment, the Legislature would have to provide initial funding in 2007.

The fund could be used to relocate or improve private or publicly owned rail facilities to relieve congestion on highways, improve public safety or air quality, or expand economic opportunity.

Earlier this year, [Governor Rick] Perry signed separate agreements with Union Pacific Railroad and the BNSF Railway Co., pledging the railroads’ and the state’s cooperation in moving freight rail out of densely populated urban areas.

The governor said the initiative would lead to safer rail crossings, less hazardous cargo carried through populated areas and faster movement of products to market because freight trains no longer would have to slow down in congested areas.

More than 5,500 people have been killed or injured in vehicle-train collisions in Texas since 1984, Perry said.

Supporters of the amendment also say old freight lines could be upgraded for urban commuter trains.

The proposed relocations tie into the Trans-Texas Corridor concept, Perry’s long-range proposal for a dedicated transportation network stretching across Texas.

Perry’s agreements with the railroads, however, didn’t say how the relocations, which could cost untold millions of dollars, would be paid for, except that the agreement with Union Pacific ruled out additional taxes or fees on the railroad industry.

Proposition 1 would provide a funding source, although Perry spokesman Robert Black emphasized, “I don’t think it was ever determined for the state to do (pay for) all of it.”

Union Pacific spokesman Joe Arbona said the railroad’s financial contribution to rail relocations would depend on the project. “If it’s something that would be beneficial to the railroad, we would pay for that part that’s beneficial to us,” he said.

On the one hand, I support the idea of rerouting freight train lines outside of urban areas, and I support the idea of freeing up those tracks for commuter rail. What’s bothering me is mostly that there’s no price tag being given (the earlier post mentions $100 million as a figure) and no clear agreement on who’s paying for how much. Given the large amounts that rail interests have donated to various Republican campaigns (including $25,000 to Perry by Union Pacific) and the predeliction of the current Lege to hand out tax-funded goodies to their corporate masters, I want more specifics before I sign on the dotted line.

As with other propositions, it’s not clear to me why this couldn’t be done by a regular act of the Lege. In February, TxDOT Chairman Ric Williamson expressed reluctance to ask the Lege for more money when there was still the issue of school finance unresolved. I don’t know what the state’s financial picture will look like in 2007, but I’m a little hesitant to force this onto the agenda without knowing what else we’ll have to be paying for. Is that too much to ask?

And sadly, Mayor White isn’t much help to me this time:

Spokesman Frank Michel said Houston Mayor Bill White is concerned about traffic congestion and safety issues involved with a large number of rail crossings, but he said the city hasn’t formally taken a position on the amendment.

I need to think about this one some more. Feel free to offer your guidance in the comments.

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5 Comments

  1. Jim D says:

    How often do you stuck waiting for a train to cross Bellaire Boulevard? Down in Sharpstown? Or out in the Navigation area?

    It happens to me too often. I think I’m going to vote for it just out of sheer road-rage.

  2. Mathwiz says:

    I support the idea of rerouting freight train lines outside of urban areas….

    Me too, especially since, starting in 2010, some of them (including one very close to my workplace) will be hauling nuclear waste to Yucca Mountain. Moving that line out of the metroplex would reduce both the chance and consequences of a serious accident, not to mention making it a less attractive terrorist target.

  3. Richard Morrison says:

    I have come to the realization that I will vote against all amendments to the Constitution that are proposed by our current Texas Gov’t.
    Fight on!
    Richard

  4. Robin Holzer says:

    CTC is also in the process of assessing Prop 1. The sponsors of the enabling legislation (HJR 54) — Rep Mike Krusee from Austin and Rep Ruth McClendon from San Antonio — are both interested in major rail relocation projects in their home cities. UP has a freight line through central Austin that carries 35 trains a day. Krusee supports a proposal to build a rail bypass east of the city, relocate the freight traffic, and convert the central line to commuter rail. McClendon is supporting a comparable proposal in San Antonio with an emphasis on getting hazardous materials freight out of neighborhoods.

    However, the hard part is determining what the rail fund will mean for Houston. Houston is different from Austin and SA because we have a major port. Since a majority of the port’s freight ends up in/near Houston, we can’t just relocate all the freight rail lines out of Houston. But the fund could help us improve the system: add capacity, build over-/underpasses, etc. And we will probably get some lines out of the rail-congested East End.

    Charles wrote:

    I support the idea of freeing up those tracks for commuter rail. What’s bothering me is mostly that there’s no price tag being given (the earlier post mentions $100 million as a figure) and no clear agreement on who’s paying for how much.

    The price tag for rail improvement projects is generally MUCH larger, hence the need for the state fund. The Austin relocation project is estimated at $1.8 billion. A Houston proposal to add capacity along US 90A to support both freight and commuter rail tops $2 billion. Federal rail improvement earmarks of $500 million don’t go very far in a state this size. This constitutional amendment would create a place for the Lege to allocate state revenue and authorize TxDOT to borrow money for rail projects (The amendments in 2001 and 2003 allowed TxDOT to begin borrowing money for highway projects and created the Texas Mobility Fund.). My understanding is it’s the borrowing that requires the Constitutional change.

    What’s troubling is the Lege won’t decide how to fund the Texas Rail Relocation & Improvement Fund until the 2007 session. Further, the Texas Transportation Commission (TxDOT’s appointed leaders) is tasked with administering the fund and turning it into projects, but we don’t yet know how that will work either. The public is supposed to trust that the rest of this will get worked out acceptably in the future, which is hard to do. One new resource: TxDOT has just released a first-ever draft
    Texas Rail System Plan (Oct 2005)

    However, one advocate of Prop 1 suggested that if the voters don’t vote for it, it may be regarded as a mandate against rail. Given the fuel efficiency, air quality, and congestion benefits of shifting freight from trucks to rail, that would be unfortunate.

    I’ll keep you posted.

  5. Sal Costello says:

    Prop 1 & 9: “Tax Wolves in sheep’s clothing”

    In 2001, 67% said yes to Proposition 15 not realizing it opened the door for the unelected to privatize and toll roads we’ve already paid for and the push for the $200 Billion (Yes, that is a B) Trans Texas Corridor (TTC).

    Beware – the “Tax Wolves” are back.

    Proposition 1 Rail Fund takes unlimited tax dollars and open-ended debt to subsidize private corporations’ rail – a blank check. Texans pay to move private corporation rail into Gov. Perry’s TTC after he promised no public funds would be used. The Republican Party of Texas platform opposes the TTC as the largest land grab in Texas history.

    Proposition 9 allows a bloated bureaucracy of non-elected, unaccountable Regional Mobility Authorities (RMAs) extended terms as they privatize and toll the public highways we’ve already paid for! Comptroller Strayhorn’s report (http://www.window.state.tx.us/specialrpt/ctrma05/) exposes the RMA’s Double Taxation, unaccountability, conflicts, and board members giving NO BID contracts to their friends and themselves. Perry’s RMA boards should follow the standard provided in the Constitution – two years – not six.

    Say NO to Prop 1 & 9. Vote early on October 24th.

    Sal Costello
    Founder of People for Efficient Transportation
    and TexasTollParty.com
    [email protected]
    http://salcostello.blogspot.com