Monday, October 17, 2005

Prop. 1: Anti-toll road activists say freight rail carriers — not taxpayers — should pay for rail improvements.

Prop. 1? It sounds like a freight train

Monday, October 17, 2005

Ben Wear
Austin American-Statesman
Copyright 2005

I don't mean to startle you, or ruin your day, but there's an election coming up.

Early voting for the Nov. 8 election, in fact, begins a week from Monday. If you've heard of the election, which involves Texans deciding whether to add nine more amendments to our ever-expanding Texas Constitution, it probably has to do with Proposition 2. That's the one that would define marriage as being between a man and a woman.

Can't find any possible transportation angle to that one. But there are two propositions that properly belong in this space, Propositions 1 and 9. If you'll sit still for a little civic medicine, this week's column will explore Proposition 1, which would set up a state fund for relocating freight railroads. Next week I'll look at Proposition 9, a less consequential proposal involving regional mobility authority board members.

Proposition 1, if we approve it, would create the "Texas Rail Relocation and Improvement Fund." Except that it wouldn't, really, because the Legislature hasn't yet dedicated any money to it. Lawmakers would have to do that in 2007.

The money — borrowed and paid back from dedicated state revenue sources — would be spent to build new freight lines outside of urban areas, or improve existing ones. All of the state's big cities have old freight rail lines cutting right through them, tying up traffic, endangering drivers at crossings and carrying hazardous materials close to homes and businesses on a daily basis. Build rural alternatives, the thinking goes, and urban life would be improved by having only local freight runs on city tracks. Transit agencies could then run passenger rail cars on the newly available tracks. And, in theory, with more capacity on freight lines, the state's highways would have fewer 18-wheelers.

No one knows for sure what all this would cost, though the number $10 billion has been bandied about. State officials have talked about dedicating about $100 million a year to it, allowing them to borrow about $1 billion. The rest would have to come from someplace else: local government, transit agencies, freight carriers or, perhaps, from Trans-Texas Corridor builder Cintra-Zachry.

Procedurally, this is a replay of what happened with the Texas Mobility Fund, a comparison not likely to make toll-road-aphobes comfortable. Texas voters in November 2001 approved the creation of that highway fund, then the Legislature came back in 2003 and ginned up some new fees that, along with some money from preexisting fees, will allow the state eventually to borrow $3 billion to $4 billion. And if the Legislature in its wisdom pinpoints other ongoing sources of money for the fund, it could borrow even more.

It's that blank-check quality — as well as the intended use, toll roads — that has put the mobility fund in bad odor with some folks, and some of its aroma is wafting over onto this railroad proposal. Anti-toll road activists say freight rail carriers — not taxpayers — should pay for rail improvements.

Next week: Proposition 9.
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