Dream of rail service ‘possible’ for RGV

A federally funded “service-level” study by the Texas and Oklahoma departments of transportation, exploring the feasibility of high-speed passenger train service between Oklahoma City and South Texas, concluded late last year that such service is “feasible” or “possible,” depending on where you live.

A federally funded “service-level” study by the Texas and Oklahoma departments of transportation, exploring the feasibility of high-speed passenger train service between Oklahoma City and South Texas, concluded late last year that such service is “feasible” or “possible,” depending on where you live.

The Texas-Oklahoma Passenger Rail Study (TOPRS) covers an 850-mile corridor, broken into three segments: Oklahoma City to Dallas-Fort Worth, DFW to San Antonio, and San Antonio to South Texas — including stops in Brownsville, Corpus Christi and Laredo.

The $7 million study deems as feasible high-speed passenger rail service up to 220 mph between DFW and San Antonio, and determined that passenger service between San Antonio through Laredo to Monterrey, Mexico, “could be feasible,” according to the Texas Department of Transportation, the lead agency in the study.

TOPRS also notes the “possibility of having passenger rail service up to 125 mph from San Antonio to the Rio Grande Valley” as well as improved Amtrak-type service between Oklahoma City and DFW.

“Feasible” sounds a shade more promising than “possible,” though Peter LeCody, president of Texas Rail Advocates, said the most heavily congested parts of the corridor — basically I-35 from the Texas-Oklahoma state line to San Antonio — are obviously more of a priority.

“You want to solve your finger-in-the-dike problem first,” he said.

But even if the Valley to Corpus Christi to San Antonio stretch hasn’t reached code red, high-speed rail in the region still makes sense, while a University of Texas study conducted a few years ago found strong public support for the concept, LeCody said, though it’s all moot if funding doesn’t materialize for the necessary next step in the process: a “nuts-and-bolts, down-on-the-ground” project-level study.

The first study showed high-speed passenger rail is doable as a high-level concept and much needed, besides whether it would ultimately be funded publicly, privately or through some combination thereof, he said. However, now that the Federal Railroad Administration has spent $7 million on the service-level study, the Texas Legislature doesn’t seem interested in investing in the next step, LeCody said.

He said he has no idea how much a project-level study would cost, though LeCody thinks legislators could find money if they felt it was a priority. Texas is still fixated on conventional roads, even while freight and passenger rail service is in a growth mode in other parts of the country, he said.

“I wouldn’t say it’s hopeless, I just don’t think our folks in Austin have thought very much outside of the highway, outside of asphalt and concrete,” he said. “What we need are fast, frequent, dependable, modern trains. It just hasn’t captured the imagination yet of our (legislators) and it should. We’re so far behind the curve on things, we have a long way to go to catch up.”

LeCody said the federal government has imposed a five-year deadline for Texas to take advantage of the work already done, by investing in a project-level study. At this point, the state has about four and a half years to make it happen, otherwise, the service-level study will need to be updated — an additional expense on top of the $7 million in taxpayer dollars already spent, he said.

“Whether it turns out to be privately financed, or a public-private partnership, or if our legislature deems that it’s in the public interest to build this with state funding and … federal funding, this is something that really needs to happen, and we need to get to the next level,” LeCody said.

sclark@brownsvilleherald.com