Riding into the Future: Texas' Vision for Passenger Rail Amidst Population Boom

In Texas, they’re laying the tracks for a major change in passenger transportation. 

Texas, poised for a population surge, is facing a pivotal moment in deciding the future of its transit systems. The 2024 Texas Transit Association (TTA) Conference in San Antonio painted a picture of determination and advocacy, championed by voices like American Public Transportation Association (APTA) Chair Michelle Wong Krause. The TTA Conference had a record-breaking attendance of just over 1,000 over the six days of networking and learning. Wong Krause noted it be “an impressive, educational experience. 

With an aim to avert the impending gridlock predicted as roadways reach their limits, the vision for Texas’ future is set on expanding passenger rail—a silent giant in the state’s infrastructure collection. 

The State of Rail Today 

Rail is not a new player in the Texas transportation scene. It’s a quiet, powerful part of the state’s infrastructure. Texas’ transportation system is trying to keep up with population growth, as commuters experience approximately 40 hours of delay each year. According to the Texas Transportation Plan 2050, the intercity passenger rail network is positioned as a critical pillar that will shoulder the weight of anticipated population growth. With Texas expected to welcome over 47 million residents by 2050, it’s clear that new modal options for travel are essential. 

Caroline Mays, Director of Planning and Modal Programs, at the Texas Department of Transportation (TxDOT) noted her take on today’s state of rail during the opening session: “What we are missing is intercity rail connectivity. With 68% of Texans living in the five metropolitan areas, we need to move passenger rail forward. Not just TxDOT, but the state of Texas needs to address this.”  

Whether it’s TxDOT working together with public transit authorities like DART in Dallas, CapMetro in Austin, or VIA in San Antonio – or streamlining the funding and support systems for new transit systems – the need for collaboration is undeniable. 

“With growing urbanization and environmental concerns, exploring sustainable transit solutions, such as expanding rail networks, will be crucial. I anticipate TTA’s efforts to encourage dialogue and action aimed at cultivating a future where efficient and accessible rail services can positively impact communities throughout Texas,” remarked Allen Hunter, Executive Director of TTA. 

The Investment Imperative 

The hustle and bustle in the hallways of the TTA Conference signaled more than just mingling of minds; it marked the emergence of a common ground on the critical need for infrastructure investment in rail connectivity among Texas’ sprawling metropolises.  

Discussions around the latest in the inter-regional collaboration between San Antonio and Austin came up more than once, noting the critical need to secure funding for a central Texas passenger rail line. Inter-regional discussions are not mere chatter but a clear sign that Texas is ready to make substantial investment.  

Jeffrey C. Arndt, President and CEO of VIA Metropolitan Transit in San Antonio, passionately noted the importance of transit funding, “In the state of Texas, we need to change the understanding that public infrastructure funding is not an ‘all transit funding or nothing model’. We need transit. Transit doesn’t just change lives – transit saves lives.”  

Investing in a passenger rail system not only brings modal choice but also increases housing affordability. A commuter rail line between Austin and San Antonio is a desire amongst many Conference attendees, avoiding I-35 traffic and future expansion.  

The Institutional Void 

Despite the clear need and desire for a comprehensive rail solution, there remains an institutional void that hampers progress. Mays points out that there is a lack of institutional framework and governance to deliver intercity passenger rail in Texas, “who will operate and manage these systems? TxDOT is not a transit system runner; they are not trained to run a system and that is the missing link – that is the void.”  

The absence of a dedicated transit entity capable of overseeing regional rail projects leaves a leadership void that must be filled. So, how do we align vision with execution? These are questions that demand answers and underscore the vibrant dialogue happening in Texas today.  

To fill the void is to create a governance framework and working group able to translate vision into action. When this void is addressed, it will not just benefit the state’s residents and the ease of their commutes, but also reinforce Texas as a leader of multimodal ingenuity in the nation. 

The Look Ahead 

This confluence between private, public, and individual interests forms the backdrop for the overarching push towards a more connected Texas.  

TxDOT is exploring potential passenger rail routes, offering hope to transit advocates in a state traditionally dominated by car travel. Knowing that Amtrak is trying to bring back the Texas Central passenger rail route breathes hope for two of the largest population centers in the country, Dallas-Fort Worth and Houston. The vision for passenger rail in Texas isn’t just about getting from A to B; it’s about forging a more sustainable, inclusive, and dynamic Texas. This undertaking requires the grit to see it through despite potential roadblocks.  

With surging car registrations, expanding highways is not a sustainable solution. Bill McCamley, Executive Director of Transit Forward, kept it real when preaching his ambitious view for the future of Texas transit: “This is a physics issue. We recognize that with the growth highways are not going to cut it by themselves. According to TxDOT, there has been a 172% increase in car registrations in the last four years and a 19% increase in highway miles. In 50 years, I hope we can live in a community where people have the option if they want to travel on an everyday basis without having to own and operate a car if they choose.” 

Texas has always been a land of pioneers, and its leap into the rail renaissance is no different. Texas stakeholders must contribute not only to policy but also in mindset. “The state of Texas is – and continues – to be the leader in many initiatives. Looking ahead, Texas needs to be one leading the nation in multimodal innovation,” concluded Mays. 

With any kind of rail, growth will be sustained. When TxDOT recognizes rail is going to be a big deal, stakeholders can use that as leverage when speaking to legislators, pushing for passenger rail funding goals – not just highways and ROW.  

“Texas stands at a pivotal moment in shaping its transit future, and passenger rail is the cornerstone of this transformation. I envision a Texas where efficient and interconnected rail systems meet the needs of our booming population, fostering sustainable growth and mobility,” said Vince Huerta, TTA President.

Michelle Wong Krause thanked all Texas advocates for their determined voice and steadfast advocacy in steering Texas transit investments in the right direction and reminded them that “advocacy is what we do best.”