Monday, October 31, 2005

“It's our tax dollars that will fund moving private corporations' rail into the very unpopular Trans-Texas Corridor.”

Proposition 1 could move trains to suburbs

October 31, 2005

By Matt Joyce
Waco Tribune-Herald
Copyright 2005

A proposed amendment to the Texas Constitution would move the iron horse out to the country.

Proposition 1 calls for the creation of a state fund to relocate railroads away from congested cities and into rural areas. While not garnering much attention as the Nov. 8 election approaches, the proposal has prompted debate in Waco and statewide about Texas transportation policy.

Supporters of the proposition say relocating railroads out of cities would make it safer and faster to move freight across Texas while opening up space within cities for new roads or commuter rail.

“Relocating rail lines will improve public safety, increase air quality and help relieve traffic congestion by opening up corridors for new roads,” said state Sen. Todd Staples, R-Palestine, a sponsor of the legislative resolution that prompted the election.

Opponents argue that the amendment amounts to a subsidy for private railroad companies and would funnel taxpayer money into the state's controversial plan to build the Trans-Texas Corridor.

“It's basically unlimited tax and debt,” said Sal Costello, founder of the People for Efficient Transportation, an Austin-based political action committee. “It's our tax dollars that will fund moving private corporations' rail into the very unpopular Trans-Texas Corridor.”

The amendment would create the Texas Rail Relocation and Improvement Fund, a fund within the state treasury.

If the proposition passes, the Legislature would need to dedicate a revenue source for the fund, according to a report by the state House Research Organization. The Texas Transportation Commission, which oversees the state transportation department, would administer the fund and could issue bonds pledged against it. The fund could go toward projects for privately and publicly owned rail lines.

In a prepared statement, Staples said there is no direct connection between Proposition 1 and the Trans-Texas Corridor. He said it's possible that “some rails may eventually be relocated along part of the proposed route,” although that's not the amendment's intent.

Gov. Rick Perry proposed in 2002 the Trans-Texas Corridor, a network of roads, railways and utility infrastructure across the state. A private company has purchased the rights to build an initial section of the corridor in exchange for a lease to operate it as a tollway.

Opponents of the corridor have generally lined up against Proposition 1, arguing that taxpayer money, including money in the proposed rail relocation and improvement fund, should not be used for the corridor project.

While the proposition does not name specific projects, its influence in the Waco area could some day include the Union Pacific Railroad running north-south through downtown Waco.

The Waco Metropolitan Planning Organization recommended as part of a 25-year plan moving the Union Pacific rail lines outside of the Waco urban area, said Christopher Evilia, the group's executive director.

The group, which is made up of Waco-area governments and sets regional priorities for the use of federal transportation funds, has not taken a position on Proposition 1, he said.

Evilia said moving the rail lines would eliminate the chance of collisions between trains and cars in Waco. It also would enable freight trains to travel more efficiently across the state without slowing down to 20 mph in cities.

On the other hand, moving the freight line could create problems for businesses that rely on access to trains, Evilia said.

“It's possible that we may need to work on recruiting a short-line company to bring freight to and from our urbanized area to a main line,” he said.

Waco-area state lawmakers are split on the proposition. McGregor Republican Sen. Kip Averitt said in a statement that he supports the passage of the amendment to “improve public safety and relieve traffic congestion on our roadways.”

“I do not believe that Proposition 1 will be used to fund the Trans-Texas Corridor,” he said.

Rep. Jim Dunnam, D-Waco, said the state should provide for safety at railroad crossings, but urged rejection of the amendment.

“I think it has the potential to basically allow state money in the form of grants to (serve as an incentive for) rail companies to move onto the Trans-Texas Corridor,” he said.

Rep. Charles “Doc” Anderson, R-Waco, said he also opposes the amendment. He said he doesn't buy into the idea that the amendment is tied to the Trans-Texas Corridor. But he is concerned that taxpayer dollars would be used for projects that the railroads should fund.

“It needs to be at the cost of the railroads, and not at the taxpayers' expense,” Anderson said.

© 2005 Waco Tribune-Herald