The conference concluded with an elected officials panel to discuss high-speed and commuter rail in the Texas Triangle. The participants included (left to right) Harris County Judge Ed Emmett, Fort Worth City Councilmember Jungus Jordan, Travis County Commissioner Sarah Eckhardt, and College Station Mayor Ben White. The discussion was moderated by Miya Shay, a reporter for KTRH-TV Channel 13 in Houston.
Judge Emmett said that the concept of high-speed rail in Texas has been around for 30 years, but the problem is that there is no agreement on what entity will develop it. Texas officials were not even paying attention to federal high-speed rail maps until the stimulus act allocated $8 billion to high-speed rail, he said. Only then did they realize that Houston is not connected to the rest of Texas on the federal plan. “Rail clearly is going to be part of the future of what we’re finally calling the Texas Triangle,” he said.
Judge Emmett said that METRO does not have the right authority to operate a commuter rail system. The Gulf Coast Freight Rail District, he said, would be a better option, but it has no taxing jurisdiction. Either the Freight Rail District must get a local funding source, he said, or a new entity should be created.
He also defended the Grand Parkway, which Christopher Leinberger had criticized earlier, saying that it will be a much-needed circle route around the city. He also said that commuter rail would lead to more sprawl by allowing people to live further and further away from the main business areas.
Councilmember Jordan said that he led the local-option transportation funding efforts that fell short at the end of the 2009 legislative session. However, he is optimistic that the bill will eventually pass. “The issue of how we’re going to pay for it,” he said, “is easy to answer. Because the real answer is, we’re going to pay for it one way or the other. We’re going to pay for it through lost jobs, worse quality of life, environment, lack of clean air.”
He identified himself as a conservative, but said that what made the local option acceptable to him was that the decisions were in the hands of the users, where they should be.
Commissioner Echkardt said that Metropolitan Planning Organizations such as CAMPO were unprepared for the stimulus act and did not have rail projects in their long-term plans, which hurt some efforts to build more rail. She said she supports the local option bill as well. “I’ll be frank with you, it is another tax,” she said. “But there’s no rail fairy.” She concluded, “It’s not big government, it’s government at the local level.”
She also noted, “There is an economy around the building of highway infrastructure that is threatened” by diverting funds to rail projects. And homebuilders are generally opposed to rail, she said, because it limits their options.
Mayor White said that the top priority issue in College Station is transportation. The City does not have enough money for transportation projects, he said, and people will want to live in College Station but commute to Houston or Austin using high-speed rail. Right now, the City can address its current needs, but it cannot prepare for future transportation needs.
Mayor White added that education and awareness efforts are important, and that organizations promoting high-speed rail and other efforts must sell the final product to the citizens.