Future of Texas rail discussed during Southwestern Rail Conference

By Alan Fleck

The region’s premiere conference on passenger and freight rail issues, the 14th Annual Southwestern Rail Conference, took place at the Magnolia Hotel Dallas on Jan. 18 and 19.

While many attendees, including industry representatives from railroads, consultants, legislators, and lawyers, were anxious to hear the latest updates on the Texas Bullet Train planned to offer service from Dallas to Houston, the conference also addressed many other topics, such as general lack of respect for rail in state transportation plans, the need for a coordinated approach for state funding, concerns about increased truck weights, and discussions about urban and suburban rail planning.

Peter LeCody, president of Texas Rail Advocates, the event’s host, provided the conference’s opening remarks.

“It was a rough year in some aspects: Hurricane Harvey and its large impact and recovery efforts,” LeCody said. “Amtrak almost eliminated 220 small and intermediate cities which rely on Amtrak. The Texas legislature’s assault on passenger trains; dozens of bills were filed. Two did pass, SB977, which prohibits the use of state money on high speed rail, which we may come to regret, and SB975 for security precautions. In 2017, TxDOT failed to include passenger rail in future planning.

“Union Pacific spent over $452 million in Texas infrastructure, while BNSF in put $255 million into their work in Texas. The Texas Bullet Train Draft Environmental Impact Statement (DEIS) was released. For first time ever, Texas short line and regional railroads were included in the Texas Freight Mobility Plan. Galveston, Texas native, Richard H. Anderson, is the new Amtrak CEO, having previously held the same post at Delta Airlines. The new downtown Dallas DART D2 line and DART Cotton Belt project from Plano to DFW are progressing. This year’s conference is more skewed to passenger rail because of so many things happening.”

Funding

John Heffner, a Washington, D.C. railroad attorney from Strasburger and Price, started his presentation by providing a comparison of how much money countries have spent on railroad development. China spent $115 billion on railroads in 2017. The US Department of Transportation 2017 budget was $76 billion. The Amtrak capital budget was only $920 million.

Hefner also provided a detailed history of various funding and grant programs available to the rail industry in order to emphasize the uncoordinated nature of railroad industry funding. He noted that while railroads may have many worthwhile projects, it is very difficult to find the funding to complete them. Most programs require local or state matching funds, so there is no such thing as 100 percent free money.

“When seeking money, creativity must be used,” Hefner said. “The Department of Transportation should be approached first, then the metropolitan planning officer for the city, then obtain support from business leaders. Don’t wait for the politicians. Build a relationship first.”

Respect

Christopher Taylor, Rail Project Manager, ARUP, responded to an agenda topic question asking why rail projects do not get the respect they deserve compared to other forms of transportation in the Southwest region.

“I think it is because the Southwest region is not really well defined or organized, and I think there is a lack of public support for rail projects, and that’s because our existing rail systems are limited,” Taylor said. “There is a car mentality, and there is very poor connectivity at those destinations, thus people will not use those systems. Finally, there is always competition for limited resources.”

Taylor defined the Southwest Region as Texas, Oklahoma, Arizona, and New Mexico.

Taylor said the benefits of passenger rail must be sold to the public, including less congestion on highways, and less fuel consumption and resulting pollution.

“There is still the ‘last mile’ problem,” Taylor said. “Local transit linking long-distance trains to Uber or similar, or autonomous vehicles will be the solution.

“If you go back to the early high speed rail studies, Southwest Airlines was against the project, as well as other airlines, because it was taking up their market. But today, the position has shifted, because the airlines are so congested, and they make more money on their long haul flights. Airlines would rather use their limited runway slots for longer haul services and have the connectivity with high speed rail or other transit services to serve the shorter distance connections. I think there has been a lot of change in thinking between the airlines and the railroad industry over the last 10 years.”

Short Line

Paul Treanger, President of Texas Short Line and Regional Railroad Association, moderated a brief panel discussion of issues facing U.S. short line railroads. Over 600 short lines play a vital role in transportation as connectors to main lines.

Laura McNichol, vice president Government and Industry Relations for Watco Companies, emphasized her company’s happiness at being in Texas, but also pointed out the challenges in Texas of talking with local policy members who have limited knowledge of short lines.

“[During a] meeting in the Lt. Governor’s office, a guy said ‘I’ve been working in this office for 15 years, and nobody’s ever talked to me about short line railroads before,’” McNichol said,

BNSF

Paul Christina, the director of network strategy for BNSF Railway, provided an update on BNSF Railway plans.

“A bet on the railroad industry, and BNSF in particular, is a bet on the long term economic health of the United States,” Christina said.

BNSF Railway is the Freight Rail Industry leader with 2017 investment of $3.3 billion and growth of 5.5 percent versus an industry average of less than 3 percent growth. BNSF partnerships exist for commuter rail companies on the BNSF lines in various locations, including the Pacific Northwest, the Midwest, Los Angeles, and in Dallas, where BNSF partners with DART and the TRE to run DART/TRE trains on BNSF tracks.

State of Texas Priorities.

Jeff Austin, State of Texas Transportation Commissioner, spoke about the current climate for Texas transportation issues.

“Economic development is not a partisan issue. That is something we need to take a look at in Texas,” Austin said. “Sometimes it becomes partisan, and it is not popular, because most of our funding goes to highway projects. We need to look at enhancing other modes of transportation.

“I am not opposed to what’s going on and coming about with high speed rail. We have got to embrace moving goods, services, and people. There is a big asterisk on everything we are saying today. It is a great day to be talking about transportation. We can’t build our roads fast enough. In the sixties, TxDOT funding at the state level used to represent 37 percent of the state budget and now it is down to just 15 percent. With funding going down and population going up and vehicle miles traveled going up, it appears we have a recipe for future disaster.

“There are so many projects still on the books that we must prioritize cities. We must co-exist. Multiple modes of transportation are critical.”

TxDOT is setting up opportunities for private investment, an example cited frequently is Amazon. Private investment is critical, according to Austin.

Austin praised DART’s progress and asked the attendees how many people in the room had ridden DART. Several people raised their hands.

Austin told the attendees that even if rail funding is being approved slowly, “they should celebrate what successes have been accomplished so far. Look at the wealth creation in these corridors. Use this [conference] to share the stories.

“From our perspective, eminent domain can be ok for the right reason,” Austin said. “Improperly used, it can be wrong or threatening. This is where acquired right of way private negotiation is completely different than use of eminent domain.”

Austin commented if we continue to stop outside private investment for Texas, the state will shrink.

“There is a role for us using federal dollars to help plan, and there is no one better to do the planning than our team,” Austin said. “The Legislature has just said we will not spend any State dollars on the high speed rail.”

Texas Central Railway

“The Bullet Train is really moving forward,” Tim Keith, president of Texas Central Railway, said. “We are talking about the DEIS now as an event rather than a goal.”

Two laws Texas Central worked on with the authors were passed in the last session of the Texas legislature. SB977 which states that no state money may be used for promotion, construction or development of high speed rail, however, also passed.

“TXDOT can review Texas Central’s plans for the Bullet Train. They can provide information about their facilities, and they can build infrastructure around the high-speed rail, just not build the high-speed rail activities,” Keith said. “That is consistent with our goals. SB975 is even more important than money. If you are moving people, then safety has to be at the top of your list. This law mandates we coordinate with federal state and local jurisdictions, which we would do anyway but most importantly is written to allow us to use technology to handle risks to passengers, equipment and facilities.”

Keith advised the preparation and issuance of the DEIS (Draft Environmental Impact Statement) has been a marathon, and is a major milestone completed over four years, requiring hundreds of thousands of man-hours, and hundreds of subject matter experts.

Keith stated the main news now is the preferred alignment for the bullet train railway has been selected.

“Some findings of the DEIS include the alignment, which impacts the fewest amount of wetlands, requires the fewest number of land parcels, impacts the least people, water, animals, creates impacts on the least amount of acreage, and would not result in significant impact due to loss of crops, crop yields, livestock, or to the state agriculture economy, and would have neutral benefit impact to the visual landscape,” Keith said. “In other words, we are using low impact design to create the largest economic impact on Texas.”

Texas Central Railway personnel have already advised the building of the new rail will cause no closures of public roads. The company claims the benefits of the new Bullet Train include reduced vehicle travel will save millions of gallons of gasoline, air quality will be improved by reducing vehicle pollution, permanent jobs will be multiplied, since each job will have 2-4 other jobs supporting it, and there will be zero noise impact from the stations.

“It is a huge moment for Texas Central and a huge moment for Texas,” Keith said. “This allows us to increase our conversations with landowners. We have about 30 percent of the parcels we believe we need under option.”

The DEIS process is a public process works when people comment. Everybody has a right to be heard, not just those who live near a proposed station or rail line. The public comment period started in December 2017 and continues until Feb. 20. There will be 10 open houses, one in every county impacted by the route of the Bullet Train. Comments can be directed to the Federal Railroad Association.

“With the DEIS out as our benchmark, we plan to have our final EIS out by the end of 2018, and a decision by end of 2018 or early 2019, which allows us to start construction in early 2019,” Keith said. “We expect a 5 year plus or minus construction cycle and are looking at the 2024 timeframe to start operations.”

During a question and answer session about high speed rail, Dr. Charles Florio, Texas Eagle Marketing, expressed his concern about the right of way issue after attending several previous Bullet Train meetings. Some farmers whose property lies in the path of the proposed rail line remain very hostile to the project.

“Transportation is one of the industries included in the Texas constitution allowing use of eminent domain,” Keith said. “However, Texas Central wants to be good neighbors, and thus prefers to negotiate, and would only go to court regarding eminent domain as a last resort.”

Passenger Corridor Development I-20 and I-35

Bill Glavin, Bridgefarmer and Associates and former TXDOT Rail Division Director, moderated a discussion about Passenger Corridor Development of I-35 and I-20. Plans exist for extending passenger rail from the Dallas-Fort Worth area through East Texas, Shreveport, and other cities in Louisiana to Meridian, Mississippi, which will potentially allow re-establishment of a connection to passenger rail to Atlanta and from there to New York. These connections would enable a high speed rail passengers to connect with transcontinental rail services.

Local Councils of Government along the I-20 route have signed Memorandums of Understanding as all have predicted local and state benefits arising from these connections, including job creation, economic development and increased tourism. Eventually two trips per day could exist between Fort Worth and Atlanta.

However, a problem was uncovered that must be resolved first. A feasibility study determined there are 21 miles of siding required at a certain point along the route. This issue requires further discussion with the existing owner railroad and the people impacted.

Kevin Feldt, North Texas Council of Governments Program Manager, mentioned the desire to ensure a westbound extension of the Houston-Dallas Bullet Train that would travel from Dallas to Arlington to Fort Worth. The suggested the Arlington stop be north of I-30 or near the new Texas Rangers stadium.

The Federal Railroad Administration has just released the Service Level Tier 1 Environmental Impact Statement for passenger rail from Oklahoma to South Texas in the I-35 corridor. This Texas-Oklahoma Passenger Rail Study is now referred to by Texas Rail Advocates as “Empower 35.”

Urban and Suburban

Tim McKay, executive vice-president, growth and regional development, Dallas Area Rapid Transit (DART), commented on the two major DART projects underway at this time, ‘Cotton Belt’ and ‘D2.’

The ‘Cotton Belt’ project consists of connecting the 26 miles west / east between DFW Airport and Plano. One big issue is there are a lot of grade crossings on the route. Vehicle selection is underway. The original target date for service was December 2018 but has changed to 2021 / 2022.

The ‘D2’ project adds a second alignment of DART tracks in downtown Dallas. For various reasons, it was decided much of ‘D2’ will be placed underground inside the downtown loop so as not to impact existing vehicle traffic and to provide operational flexibility and options to grow.