The Texas population is expected to more than double by the year 2030, which may lead some to wonder just how our already congested metropolitan area roadways will handle the load. The Texas Department of Transportation (TxDOT) is challenged with meeting the mobility needs of the growing population. With the help of a recently completed research project by the Texas Transportation Institute (TTI), TxDOT now has a better understanding of its role in another approach to moving people efficiently — rail transit.
“Roadway capacity has not been able to keep up with population, so looking at increasing the capacity of travel corridors through projects such as rail makes sense,” says TTI Research Scientist Jeff Arndt. “Also I think the $4 gasoline we were experiencing a year ago is a portent of days to come. We saw that not only in Texas, but nationally, there was a large shift toward looking for other options than driving alone when fuel prices got to those levels.”
The research team examined the variety of impacts of light-rail and commuter-rail projects. Specifically, the team documented the role(s) that other state DOTs have played in planning, designing, developing and operating light and commuter-rail. Then the researchers examined current TxDOT policies associated with participation in rail projects in our urban areas. Finally, the research effort linked potential impacts to TxDOT agency goals and identified any legislative or administrative changes that would be needed in order to permit TxDOT to participate in rail projects.
“We consolidated research at a national level on transportation, social and economic impacts for those types of rail projects,” says Arndt. “We started by looking at how the federal government evaluates rail projects because that tells you what kinds of impacts they are expecting when those projects are implemented.”
The researchers found that rail systems, for the most part, meet TxDOT agency goals since they are safe, environmentally friendly, expand mobility and reduce household investment in transportation. TxDOT‘s interests are more closely aligned with commuter-rail than light-rail. Their economic impact was also examined, with the team concluding that impacts are strongest in station areas, as access to rail increases the value of nearby property. The positive impact of rail on property values does not hold true for property directly adjacent to the rail line, however.
So what does this mean for TxDOT‘s role in urban rail planning? “TxDOT has already served as a catalyst in exploring regional rail in the San Antonio-Austin corridor and the Houston metropolitan region,” says Arndt. “TxDOT‘s ability to assist in advancing these kinds of rail projects further would be enhanced through increased funding and possibly by providing TxDOT the ability to obtain rolling stock.”