Proposition 1: " An open-ended corporate subsidy scheme — a blank check."
Oct. 8, 2005,
By CLAY ROBISON
Copyright 2005 Houston Chronicle Austin Bureau
AUSTIN - The first of nine state constitutional amendments proposed on the Nov. 8 ballot would establish a fund through which taxpayers would help pay for relocating freight rail lines from congested urban areas.
Like most of the ballot proposals, except for the ban on same-sex marriages, Proposition 1 has received little attention. But it is beginning to spark some debate and, depending on how it fares at the polls, could become an issue in the March Republican governor's primary.
Proposition 1 supporters, including Gov. Rick Perry, think the new fund would be an important step toward easing traffic congestion and improving public safety in Texas' cities.
Opponents, who include Comptroller Carole Keeton Strayhorn, the governor's GOP primary challenger, contend the proposal represents, more than anything else, an expensive gift of tax dollars for railroad companies, whose political arms have been generous contributors to Perry, Strayhorn and other state officials.
Proposition 1 would amend the Texas Constitution to authorize the creation of the Texas Rail Relocation and Improvement Fund in the state treasury. The Texas Transportation Commission would administer the fund and could issue bonds pledged against it.
The proposal includes no funding, and it doesn't specify how much should be set aside for the effort.
If voters approve the amendment, the Legislature would have to provide initial funding in 2007.
The fund could be used to relocate or improve private or publicly owned rail facilities to relieve congestion on highways, improve public safety or air quality, or expand economic opportunity.
Safer crossings sought
Earlier this year, Perry signed separate agreements with Union Pacific Railroad and the BNSF Railway Co., pledging the railroads' and the state's cooperation in moving freight rail out of densely populated urban areas.
The governor said the initiative would lead to safer rail crossings, less hazardous cargo carried through populated areas and faster movement of products to market because freight trains no longer would have to slow down in congested areas.
More than 5,500 people have been killed or injured in vehicle-train collisions in Texas since 1984, Perry said.
Supporters of the amendment also say old freight lines could be upgraded for urban commuter trains.
The proposed relocations tie into the Trans-Texas Corridor concept, Perry's long-range proposal for a dedicated transportation network stretching across Texas.
Perry's agreements with the railroads, however, didn't say how the relocations, which could cost untold millions of dollars, would be paid for, except that the agreement with Union Pacific ruled out additional taxes or fees on the railroad industry.
Provisions for funding
Proposition 1 would provide a funding source, although Perry spokesman Robert Black emphasized, "I don't think it was ever determined for the state to do (pay for) all of it."
Union Pacific spokesman Joe Arbona said the railroad's financial contribution to rail relocations would depend on the project. "If it's something that would be beneficial to the railroad, we would pay for that part that's beneficial to us," he said.
Union Pacific's political action committee donated more than $300,000 to Texas political candidates and parties during the 2004 election cycle. That included $25,000 to Perry, $50,000 to Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst and $15,000 to Strayhorn, who weren't up for election then, and $20,000 to House Speaker Tom Craddick, who was.
Texas political contributions by BNSF's political action committee totaled about $80,000 during the 2004 cycle, mostly to parties and committees.
Dewhurst received $10,000 from the PAC.
There were no donations to Perry, Craddick or Strayhorn.
Strayhorn hasn't made an issue of Proposition 1, but spokesman Mark Sanders said the comptroller will vote against it because "she believes that taxpayers should not have to pay to subsidize private industry."
Source of opposition
Much of the opposition to Proposition 1 is being drummed up by Texas Toll Party, a group that formed in Austin initially to fight the conversion of tax-financed highways to toll roads. The group hasn't endorsed anyone in the governor's race yet, but it has found common ground with Strayhorn in opposing Perry's support of toll roads and now in opposition to the rail proposal.
Sal Costello, the group's founder, called the amendment an "open-ended corporate subsidy scheme — a blank check."
"That means increased taxes somewhere down the line," he said. "Perry's folks probably don't know (how much it will cost), and they don't care. They will send us the bill."
Spokesman Frank Michel said Houston Mayor Bill White is concerned about traffic congestion and safety issues involved with a large number of rail crossings, but he said the city hasn't formally taken a position on the amendment.