Wednesday, October 25, 2006

Ric Williamson: "Nothing's sacred about any kind of land—ranch land is not more valuable than someone's Exxon service station in Downtown Temple."

Funding Sought for Texas Rail

Relocation Projects a Legislative Priority


By Elizabeth Albanese
The Bond Buyer
Copyright 2006

Dallas-Texas Transportation officials have a hefty agenda planned for the upcoming legislative session that begins January 9, 2007, including requests for a new series of revenues to finance rail relocation projects.

Texas Transportation Commissioner Ted Houghton has unveiled for the first time revenues identified by the Texas Department of Transportation to finance a Rail Relocation Fund approved by the state Legislature in 2005.

"While lawmakers approved the fund itself during the regular session, they did not fund it," Houghton said. "Here, for the first time, is the list of five detailed funding options that we will recommend for that purpose."

Included in the anticipated request are a diesel fuel tax or a freight rail container tax on intermodal transportation, a per ton-per mile tax on freight transportation, an origin/destination fee on rail transports, and a sales tax on freight transportation.

The Rail Relocation fund was developed to finance the relocation of rail lines away from busy urban centers or highways, where train traffic can hinder motor vehicle mobility.

Projects could be self-supporting projects, such as intermodal freight centers, or could be built in partnership with the railroads or on their behalf. The fund would likely back bonds issued to finance selected projects.

It is anticipated that the Rail Relocation Fund could be used much like the Texas mobility Fund for highways, with local officials and railroad representatives working with TxDOT to identify projects.

"The areas that we are targeting now include rail lines that cause bottlenecks, grade separation, economic development opportunities, and safety improvements," Houghton said.

Ric Williamson, the chairman of the Texas Transportation Commission—which oversees all financings and projects by TxDOT—said once rail lines were moved, the department could take title to the land that formerly housed active private rail lines.

"Those tracks could be used for passenger rail," he said. "And in many instances, those corridors could be used for additional highway lanes."

He said TxDOT was the natural choice to take title to such land.

"Even on lines that have been abandoned, we don't really see the railroads selling their land," Williamson said. "It's basically environmental wasteland. But for us, that land represents a number of opportunities."

Williamson said TxDOT officials hope the Legislature will approve funding that will allow the department to continue the transportation initiatives that have already bolstered mobility efforts in the Lone Star State.

"Every dollar that we have already identified—including our $3 billion general obligation bond authorization, the Texas Mobility Fund, and our state and federal revenues—are already committed," he said. "It's misleading to discuss the fact that we have these revenues and think they're the answer to our problem. It's an $86 billion problem, not a $4.5 billion problem."

State Rep. Charlie Howard, R- Sugar Land, said he will continue to support both private and public toll roads. He said he believes toll roads can resolve some mobility issues in areas that will support such endeavors.

"Toll roads won't work everywhere, but in those areas where user fees can support a toll road, they make sense," he said, adding that he believes arguments that such roads are too costly are disingenuous. "There are already free alternatives, and congestion on those roads will be relieved by the opening of a toll road. And if you don't want to pay the toll, you don't have to use the toll road."

Independent candidates for Governor Carole Keeton Strayhorn and Kinky Friedman have spoken out against private-public partnerships, saying that such projects included in the Trans-Texas Corridor will cut through ranch land and displace some homeowners and business owners.

Williamson, however, maintains that concessions deals will play an important role in getting needed mobility projects built years before the state could finance them.

"On private-public toll roads, TxDOT owns the right of way, and local and regional leaders are all involved in the decisions about where they'll be," he said. "The private sector partners know what to expect—that there will be a level of government interference."

He said that as for displacing Texans from their land, it's an unfortunate reality of building highways.

"There's nothing easy about this," Williamson said. "But there's nothing sacred about any kind of land—ranch land is not more valuable than someone's Exxon service station in Downtown Temple. If I had to say something to such a landowner, I'd tell tham I was damned sorry this was happening. And if they don't want to cash out—sell their property outright—they can be an active participant in the revenue stream of these projects. Texas is the only state that allows that, and I think that shows how much we care about the rights of landowners."

© 2006 The Bond Buyer: