Sunday, October 30, 2005

Stall on Proposition 1 : "Safety is the excuse; politics is the reality."

Measure spurs debate on funding new tracks

Oct. 30, 2005

Fort Worth Star-Telegram
Copyright 2005

Should taxpayers shoulder the cost of moving rail lines out of populated areas?

Taxpayers would be writing a blank check to railroads and granting enormous new powers to the Texas Department of Transportation if voters approve Proposition 1 on Nov. 8, critics say.

Proposition 1 would allow the transportation department to issue debt and build new rail lines that bypass congested areas, including downtown Fort Worth and Arlington.

But public officials and others who support the proposed constitutional amendment say it's a worthwhile expense to move freight lines out of populated areas -- to save lives, reduce air pollution and relieve traffic.

It doesn't specify the cost. But the Texas Legislative Council, in an analysis prepared for the Texas House, estimates that debt service could cost as much as $87.5 million per year beginning in 2007.

"This is uncapped debt. The taxpayers will pay for moving profitable, private corporations," said Sal Costello of Austin, founder of People for Efficient Transportation, which opposes the proposition. "We're going to pay for them to have new rails."

Supporters say the money could also be used to refurbish the old freight tracks for use as passenger rail lines, toll roads or bus-only express lanes.

In the Metroplex, elected leaders who support Proposition 1 hope it jump-starts plans for a regionwide commuter rail system. Many North Texas cities were born as railroad towns and still have their old tracks.

For example, if Union Pacific abandoned its busy rail line from downtown Fort Worth to Dallas, the corridor could be converted to passenger rail service with stops in Arlington.

Passing Proposition 1 might also make it possible to close many of the 2,500 railroad crossings in North Texas. About 5,500 people were killed or injured in train-automobile crashes in Texas from 1984 to 2004, federal statistics show.

And it could quell complaints from residents of Colleyville, Park Glen and many other neighborhoods bombarded by train horn noise.

"It will improve safety and move hazardous materials shipments out of our cities and neighborhoods," said Oscar Trevino, North Richland Hills mayor. "Freight congestion hampers our ability to expand the Fort Worth Transportation Authority. It hampers our ability to have commuter rail developed from Burleson to North Richland Hills."

Officials from Fort Worth-based BNSF and Omaha, Neb.-based Union Pacific -- the two biggest railroad companies in Texas -- said they support the relocation concept but won't comment on which rail lines might be moved, or when.

In March, executives from the two railroads met with Gov. Rick Perry and signed agreements in principle to eventually move their operations off tracks in congested areas.

In North Texas, that could mean both companies' abandoning the rail yards near downtown Fort Worth, including Tower 55 -- where national corridors for BNSF and Union Pacific intersect -- and building or expanding yards west of Fort Worth and south of Dallas.

But it may be years before specific plans are unveiled.

"It's the details," said Richard Russack, BNSF vice president of corporate relations. "You have to really see what's being proposed and see how it will work."

Unlike highways, which are publicly owned, railroad tracks are thin swaths of private property.

Supporters say it's not fair to ask railroad companies, which laid many of their lines long before Dallas-Fort Worth became a metropolis, to cover the relocation costs.

"There is no incentive for the railroads to pay for it. They're happy where they are," said state Rep. Linda Harper-Brown, R-Irving. "It's time to do our part. If we don't improve our mobility, businesses will go to other states."

But, she quickly added, the creation of a rail relocation fund is primarily about quality of life, such as reducing traffic congestion.

"We're not looking to improve businesses," she said. "We're looking at improving the lives of Texans."

Still, critics have many concerns about the bottom line of Proposition 1.

As much as $200 million might be needed to start up the rail relocation and improvement fund, said Texas Transportation Commission Chairman Ric Williamson of Weatherford. That money could leverage up to $1 billion for rail projects.

However, no one has said publicly where the seed money and the money to make annual debt payments would come from. Presumably, the funds would be requested during the next regular session of the Legislature, in 2007.

Williamson said toll road revenues could be among the sources of repayment.

The state's gasoline tax fund, which normally pays for highway work, cannot be used on rail-only projects. But the gasoline tax might be a revenue source for development of toll roads or bus-only lanes in former rail corridors, Williamson said.

Many facets of the rail relocation program are yet to be negotiated, Harper-Brown said. Who decides which rail lines to buy or build first? Who takes possession of the purchased railroad land? Will state, county or municipal officials make decisions about what to do with abandoned rail corridors? All those questions will be addressed if Proposition 1 passes, she said.

But even with all those unanswered questions, the bottom line for many critics is that Texans would be saddled with years of expensive debt payments.

"Such expenditures are tantamount to a state subsidy for rail," said David Stall, co-founder of CorridorWatch, a group that opposes the state's Trans-Texas Corridor plans.

CorridorWatch doesn't have an official position on Proposition 1, but Stall doesn't mind explaining why he thinks it's a bad deal.

He believes that supporters are less concerned about safety and more concerned about creating commuter rail.

"Safety is the excuse; politics is the reality," Stall said. "Giving the Transportation Commission and TxDOT a blank check to play trains is a bad idea, a very bad idea, with or without Prop. 1."

Gordon Dickson, (817) 685-3816

© 2005 Fort Worth Star-Telegram