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December 02, 2013

Feds spend $600 million fixing private railroads during Obama administration

MiamirailCurtis Tate of McClatchy's Washington Bureau wrote an interesting story that ran on page one of today's Star-Telegram. It pointed out that, while railroads boast of their private investment in infrastructure, they've actually enjoyed a $600 million contribution of federal funds during the Obama administration.

I don't necessarily agree that, as Tate writes, "... (t)he nation's freight rail network has been the quiet recipient" of these funds. Anyone who has been following the ongoing effort to expand the Tower 55 freight rail area near downtown Fort Worth knows about the federal government's willingness to pony up public dollars, especially when matched by private-sector contributions. It's an extremely common form of federal funding. The general feeling among many urban planners is, forming a so-called public private partnership is the best way to get federal money, because those holding the federal purse strings are more likely to go along with a project if they're paying only a share (preferably less than half) of the costs. The feds want state, local and corporate skin in the game. But I think the important thing the story accomplishes is tapping the brakes on the freight companies' assertion that they're improving their infrastructure "so taxpayers don't have to" - as if they're doing us all a favor. Let's not forget that they're also maintaining a reliable rail network because it ensures they will enjoy profits (as they should).

A final thought on the use of federal funds for freight rail: Many of the projects cited in the story are in populated areas, where the existence of railroad tracks predated the arrival of large groups of humans. Railroad right-of-way is private property, and the freight railroad companies enjoy special protections under federal law. For example, if a state wants to build a highway in your neighborhood, it can take your property through eminent domain laws - but it cannot touch the railroad tracks without permission of the owner. What's why it took years of negotiations to persuade the Union Pacific Railroad to allow the construction of the Chisholm Trail Parkway toll road over the Davidson yard in west Fort Worth - and also to allow construction of a new Division Street rail bridge over Texas 360 in Arlington. Those projects also benefitted from tens of millions of federal dollars spent to improve rail infrastructure - and those agreements were inked when President George W. Bush was in office.

So when urban planners need to cross or relocate railroad tracks for the public good, it often requires a large contribution of federal funds to persuade the railroads to go along. And why not? In many instances, they were there first.



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A lot of times there are two separate interests at work. The railroad has one set of goals and the other party has another set of goals. Sometimes the goals are the same, such as a grade crossing closure or grade separation project.

If I understand correctly, didn't the Tower 55 project receive a significant amount of federal funding as part of a plan to limit idling trains causing pollution? I doubt the railroads care much about the pollution (fuel expenditures, yes), but if a side effect of the federal government wanting to improve air quality is that rail velocity improves, why not take the money and upgrade the infrastructure?

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