Saturday, January 22, 2005

Texas lags in rail

Texas lags other regions in rail

Saturday, January 22, 2005
Tony Hartzel
Dallas Morning News,Copyright 2005

Four years ago, federal officials gave a name – but no money – to the new South Central High-Speed Rail Corridor running through the economic and population center of Texas.

Since then, the rail line remains the only one of 11 specially designated corridors nationwide with no state or federal funding. Little has changed on the Y-shaped corridor, which runs south from Little Rock, Ark., and Oklahoma City, converges in Dallas and heads south to San Antonio.

Other areas of the country, including the Southeast and the West Coast, have a head start on Texas, and their systems are either in the works or up and running, said Peter LeCody, president of Texas Rail Advocates, a Dallas-based group that lobbies for improved passenger and freight rail service.

In the Southeast, "they're moving along with commuter rail pretty well," said Mr. LeCody. "We're kicking dust down here."

Virginia, Georgia, Florida and the Carolinas received their high-speed rail corridor designation in 1992. The service, envisioned as an alternative to highway and air travel for distances of 100 to 500 miles, could begin service as early as 2010.

Texas Rail Advocates will host a one-day seminar Friday at Dallas/Fort Worth International Airport to draw attention to the need.

"We hope to enlist mayors, counties, chambers of commerce and others to build a groundswell of support and say to Congress that we want this funded," said Paul Mangelsdorf, a member of the Texas Rail Advocates board.

In Texas, the earliest that track improvements could begin is 2010, but noticeable changes including passenger rail service probably won't occur until 2020, Mr. LeCody said.

"If we could develop this in Texas, it would help in social ways and economic ways, as well," he said, noting that better rail service could take tractor-trailers off highways.

Rather than build new rail lines, the goal of a high-speed rail corridor is to improve existing tracks to allow freight and possibly passenger trains to travel at speeds up to 110 mph.

The designation does not mean that bullet trains, which were a contentious topic about 10 years ago, will be coming to Texas.

Most Texas rail lines feature only a single track and have numerous street crossings. Money that comes with the high-speed rail corridor designation would allow the state to build a parallel track in some areas or build elevated crossings that eliminate the need for slower speeds around traffic.

But rail supporters face obstacles to improved rail service in Texas. First, there is no organized effort to get federal money. That effort should begin with the Texas Department of Transportation, Mr. LeCody said.

"We have all these different voices right now. Everyone is running in circles right now trying to grab what federal money is available," he said. "Everything could be funneled through one source."

The state transportation department also is working with a consortium to build the Trans-Texas Corridor, which could feature its own rail projects. Although plans from corridor developer Cintra do not include heavy rail investment until 2025 or later, the state is looking at other possibilities, said Ric Williamson, chairman of the Texas Transportation Commission Chairman. The state may use part of a $1.2 billion payment from Cintra to develop train service.

"Most of the market is in high-speed passenger rail from D/FW to San Antonio," but that doesn't mean bullet trains, Mr. Williamson said.

In addition, the state transportation department has recognized the need for improved rail connections in Texas, and it is seeking more money and rail authority from the Legislature this year.

Nationwide, a growing system of regional rail lines could eventually allow for improved national passenger train service, Mr. LeCody said.

"When you connect all the regional rails, in essence you have developed a national corridor," he said.

Tony Hartzel can be reached at and at P.O. Box 655237, Dallas, Texas 75265.