"We see this as corporate welfare."
Nov. 01, 2005
DAVID KOENIG and ABE LEVY
In the shadow of downtown Fort Worth and Interstate 30 lies one of the nation's busiest rail intersections - the confluence of Union Pacific and Burlington Northern tracks, where more than 100 freight and passenger trains pass through on a typical day.
It was mostly prairie when the rail crossing was built a century ago, but now it is hemmed in by buildings, plus thousands of cars and trucks a day. The interchange is called Tower 55, and it's a prime candidate for movement beyond the suburbs, freeing the land for economic development.
That's what Republican Gov. Rick Perry and railway executives envision if Texas voters approve Proposition 1 on the Nov. 8 ballot. The measure would authorize the Legislature to establish a fund to relocate freight railways and support it with bonds.
No dollar amount is proposed in the ballot item, but Ric Williamson, chairman of the Texas Transportation Commission, has said the state would probably ask the Legislature for up to $200 million in 2007. Relocation projects could total $20 billion over the next 30 years, he said.
The new fund could pay for new overpasses and underpasses at dangerous intersections, purchase land to build new tracks in rural areas and expand the efficiency and freight capacity of rail systems, supporters says. Such new infrastructure also could reduce the demand for tractor-trailers to carry cargo, reducing traffic on interstates and air pollution, they say.
But opponents say the proposition, which would amend the state constitution, would give private industry a tax subsidy, allowing them to build new railways at the public's expense.
Sal Costello, leader of the Texas Toll Party, an Austin group that opposes new toll roads, says he supports moving railways out of crowded urban areas.
"I just don't know why taxpayers have to write a blank check," Costello said. "We see this as corporate welfare."
Costello and other critics say that private companies like Fort Worth-based Burlington Northern Santa Fe Corp. and Omaha, Neb.-based Union Pacific Corp. don't need the state's help.
Burlington Northern and Union Pacific, the nation's two largest freight railroads, reported in October a surge in third-quarter profits. Burlington Northern earned $414 million and Union Pacific $369 million from July through September.
But Rep. Ruth Jones McClendon, D-San Antonio, says it's impossible for the rail companies to repair, maintain and move rail lines without state help.
She wrote Proposition 1 and helped get it on the ballot after five people died in rail accidents in San Antonio last year. She said the proposition would improve public safety by helping railways move to less populated areas.
"The rails are now coming through crowded neighborhoods and running off tracks and carrying hazardous materials and killing people," McClendon said.
Supporters also say that shopping centers, commuter rail lines and new highways could be built where previous tracks used to pose safety hazards and cause long waits for trains to pass.
Pat Hiatte, a Burlington Northern spokesman, said Proposition 1 would let railroads provide more-efficient service while addressing safety and other issues caused by having rail freight operations in urban areas.
The measure doesn't specify whether a railroad company should help relocation costs, although Union Pacific and Burlington Northern say they would consider it.
"This is not an attempt to use public funds for improving tracks. Union Pacific would pay for the portion that is a benefit to Union Pacific," company spokesman Joe Arbona said.
Proposition 1 has also taken on political complications. Comptroller Carole Keeton Strayhorn, Perry's challenger in next year's Republican primary, has criticized the measure as a giveaway to private railroad companies.
David Van Os, a Democratic candidate for attorney general, said the rail measure and another proposition to surrender state claim to land in two counties "are on the ballot to speed up the Perry government's rush to put higher profits into the bank accounts of private developers at the taxpayers' expense."
Members of the Young Conservatives of Texas say Proposition 1 would require higher taxes because there is no room left in the state budget to pay for rail relocations.
One of the group's officers, Southern Methodist University student Colby Tiner, called it "a smoke screen for tax increases" that is designed to help spur Perry's controversial plan for a transportation corridor across Texas that would include toll roads.
Kathy Walt, Perry's spokeswoman, said the proposition wouldn't require a tax increase and would help the public.
"It's not a private benefit to the railroads," Walt said. "This amendment is a benefit to Texans who are caught in traffic or are injured or killed because of hazardous cargo or in accidents at at-grade railroad crossings."
© 2005 The Associated Press: