Wednesday, October 19, 2005

Amendment would pay railroads to get on the TTC Gravy Train

Proposal would OK rail bonds


Patrick Driscoll
San Antonio Express-News
Copyright 2005

San Antonio residents last year saw the horrors of trains crashing, spewing poison, spilling fuel and killing people.

Five people died and 50 were injured in incidents including the deadliest chemical accident on the rails in more than a decade. Still, the city was lucky — densely populated areas were spared a major disaster.

Activists cried for reforms, and local leaders pressured Union Pacific to improve safety and scrambled to come up with ways to reroute trains out of the inner city.

Now voters will decide whether to approve a new funding option.

Proposition 1 on the Nov. 8 ballot would let the state sell bonds to acquire land for freight and passenger rail and help build and improve tracks.

"This is right in line with what we've been saying," said Genaro Rendon, co-director of the Southwest Workers' Union. "It's good to see that there's movement forward."

But others, especially those stung by the state's push to partner with companies to build toll roads, want to put the brakes on what they say could end up becoming another scheme to line the pockets of private industry.

"It's basically a blank check and an open-ended tax subsidy for private rail corporations," said Terri Hall of Texas Toll Party — San Antonio.

If voters approve the constitutional amendment, the Legislature would still have to create a fund to leverage bonds. Estimates show that $100 million a year for 20 years could generate $1 billion upfront for projects.

Building railroad tracks around San Antonio could cost more than $1 billion and take a decade or more, officials say.

Money could be used to get truck freight off highways, reroute trains to rural areas, reduce air pollution and create economic opportunities. That includes getting Union Pacific through trains off the Interstate 35 corridor from San Antonio to Austin and upgrading old tracks for commuter rail.

"It gives us some opportunities to solve some huge transportation problems down the road if we're successful with this," Bexar County Judge Nelson Wolff said.

Efforts could tie in with the Trans Texas Corridor, a 4,000-mile network of toll roads, rail lines and utility lines to be built across the state over 50 years. State officials signed a contract earlier this year with a private consortium to develop plans for the segment east of I-35.

Critics point out that borrowing does not produce new money — it just delays the payments. And debt service on the rail bonds could cost the state $87.5 million a year.

"That's something that the railroads can pay for by themselves," said Mark Sanders, spokesman for state Comptroller Carole Keeton Strayhorn, who is challenging Gov. Rick Perry in the GOP primary.

In March, Perry announced historic pacts with UP and Burlington Northern Santa Fe that say public and private funds spent for railroad tracks should match, respectively, public and private benefits.

UP rolls up to 70 trains a day through San Antonio and is having a hard time keeping up with growing freight demand, officials say. New tracks east of I-35 would get more cargo moving faster while avoiding choke points here and in Fort Worth.

Then UP could compete better with trucks using I-35, said Bruce Flohr, a railroad consultant and chairman of the Bexar County Rail District. Each rail car can handle three to four truckloads, he said.

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