News & Reviews News Wire Texas mayor vocal about need for passenger rail at House hearing: Analysis

Texas mayor vocal about need for passenger rail at House hearing: Analysis

By Bob Johnston | November 29, 2023

California high-speed project, environmental permitting debated; no Amtrak witness invited

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Passenger train in background with station in foreground
The southbound Texas Easgle makes a stop in Austin, Texas, on June 1, 2017. Austin’s mayor spoke for improved passenger service at a House subcommitee hearing on Wednesday, Nov. 28. Bob Johnston

WASHINGTON — Austin, Texas, Mayor Kirk Watson expressed strong support for expanded rail service in the San Antonio-Dallas-Houston “Texas Triangle” at a hearing of the U.S. House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee’s rail subcommittee in Washington today (Wednesday, Nov. 29).

The session, however, primarily provided a platform for critics of the California High-Speed Rail Authority to repeatedly bash that agency and its project.

The hearing of the Railroads, Pipelines, and Hazardous Materials Subcommittee, “Getting on the Right Track: Navigating the Future of Intercity Passenger Rail in America,” was announced by subcommittee Chairman Troy Nehls (R-Tex.) just two days earlier. The 2-hour, 20-minute hearing and links to testimony are available here; the hearing begins at the 30-minute mark of the video.

Also testifying, in addition to Watson, were:

— Stacey Mortensen, executive director of California’s San Joaquin Joint Powers Authority;

— Andy Daly, senior director of CSX passenger operations;

— Lee Ohanian, UCLA economics professor and senior fellow at the Hoover Institution, a think tank promoting free enterprise and limited government.

Daly pointed to planned capacity improvements in Virginia’s Richmond-Washington, D.C., corridor; Maine’s Downeaster; and the proposed Boston-Springfield, passenger expansion as examples of CSX’s “four pillars” policy governing approval of new passenger service. These are satisfying company requirements to address “safety, capacity, compensation, and liability.”

Passenger train travels beneath bridge under construction.
A Bakersfield-bound San Joaquin with cab car leading passes under a highway overpass constructed by the California High-Speed Rail Authority south of Fresno, Calif., on October 21, 2019. Bob Johnston

Nehls assailed the California High-Speed Rail Authority’s construction delays beginning with his opening statement, but conceded, “While the California High-Speed Rail project shows the failures of poor planning and government incompetence, there are promising opportunities to promote intercity passenger rail responsibly.”

Brightline West’s estimated $12 billion Las Vegas-Southern California venture was cited by Ohanian, who claimed the now-$128 billion Los Angeles-San Francisco California high speed project is more expensive on a per-mile basis solely because it was publicly funded.

It wasn’t until Rep. Mark Desauliner (D-Calif.) pointed out, nearly 2 hours into the hearing, that Brightline did not face the California project’s right-of-way land acquisition challenges of the Tehachapi mountains and urban communities in either Florida or Nevada and California that any lawmaker mentioned the difference. “Public-private projects can fail too,” he said, “if we don’t get the risk assessment right.” Representative Seth Moulton (D-Mass) also noted that none of the witnesses had experience constructing or operating high speed rail systems.

Desauliner and San Joaquin’s Mortensen also addressed the increasing cost of delays as a result of environmental permitting. Mortensen explained that a $400 million infrastructure project ready to go out for bid is being held up by new permitting which will require additional approvals. “Every month delayed [the cost goes up] 3%; 3% on $400 million is a lot of money, so any improvement in that process would be welcomed,” she said.

Mortensen’s opening statement outlined the importance of a “ground game” to determine the transportation needs intercity rail can satisfy among potential customers in communities along the route.

Highway congestion stretches for miles on Interstate 35 as the Texas Eagle enters Austin, Texas, on June 1, 2017. Bob Johnston

That sentiment was echoed by Watson, who reminded the other politicians that Austin is the tenth largest city in America and is drowning in highway gridlock. With no one from Amtrak on the witness list, Watson received the bulk of the questions that didn’t involve high-speed rail. A well-researched, 22-page statement revealed his familiarity with the limitations of the Texas Eagle’s daily 6-hour round trip from Dallas, reduced capacity, and on-time performance challenges.

Watson mentioned that the state has applied to the Federal Railroad Administration’s Corridor ID program on behalf of the “Texas Triangle” and pointed to Virginia’s successful passenger rail program as an example of how critical highway congestion can be solved. However, Virginia has developed a dedicated funding stream for passenger rail that neither Texas nor many other states possess.

A lengthy passage in Watson’s written statement underscoring his views on long-distance trains also deserves mention.

“While much of my testimony is focused on improving regional corridor service, I want to convey that I am fully supportive of Amtrak’s long-distance network, and not just because it is the only service we now have in Austin (only for the time being I hope),” he wrote. “I also support it because it helps bind our nation together and provides an invaluable transportation service to hundreds of small communities throughout our nation that, absent Amtrak long-distance service, would have no other non-automobile connection to the rest of the country. Meeting national goals such as improving mobility for small town America is one of the main reasons we have a federal government, and it is entirely appropriate for the federal government to support Amtrak’s long-distance network. That is why Amtrak’s long-distance service enjoys such strong support from local elected officials of all political stripes across the nation.”

Many lawmakers at Wednesday’s hearing voted to cut Amtrak funding earlier this year [see “House Republicans propose 64% cut …,” Trains News Wire, July 12, 2023]. In the absence of a company representative, Watson made a compelling case for strengthening national-network investment.

6 thoughts on “Texas mayor vocal about need for passenger rail at House hearing: Analysis

  1. How can you have an objective hearing on Navigating the Future of Intercity Passenger Rail in America without having witnesses from Amtrak, Bightline, and/or any state DOT?

  2. If the Chairman of a Washington committee has an (R) after their name you can bet it will go off the rails and be one sided.

  3. Mr. Forbes you nailed it with your last sentence. Too much monied influence directing policy locally & nationally today & not for the good of us or our future just sustaining the wealth of the few.

  4. Mayor Watson needs to talk to the folks closer to home. TDOT is rebuilding I-35 corridor between Dallas / Fort Worth, Austin and San Antonio. They don’t have a clue about putting rail down the center of a highway unless the rail (MoPac) was there first. Of course the major cause of this might be the state legislature’s total disdain of passenger rail. No rail lobbyist money in their feed trough.

  5. As Austin Bergstrom emerges as one of the growing and successful airports … which goes to show that in air transport, even a second-tier airport like Austin Bergstrom makes intercity rail travel look like a footnote to a footnote to an asterisk.

    A few years ago, I’d barely heard of Austin, other than knowing it’s a state capital and the site of a major university. Now, these days, when I scan an airport monitor, there’s flights to or from Austin.

    Give it up, Amtrak. Until you have multiple daily frequencies to a selection of destinations, you simply don’t matter. Everyone knows that except this mayor.

  6. Thank you Mayor Watson for unifying comments during these squabalous times and your great advocacy for better passenger rail.

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