When a rural rail line is removed due to unprofitability, the affected towns are quick to seek options, like a rural rail transportation district (RRTD), to remedy the loss. RRTDs in Texas are formed at the county commissioners’ court level to prevent the loss of rural rail lines abandoned by rail companies, to maintain the former rail right-of-way for future transportation uses, or to support new freight rail development. In a project for the Texas Department of Transportation titled The Role of Rural Rail Transportation Districts in Texas, the Texas A&M Transportation Institute (TTI) recently updated a set of reports documenting the history of RRTDs in Texas over a 32-year period and tracking their successes and failures.
“One of the things this project looked at was measuring the success of particular RRTDs,” says Curtis Morgan, TTI assistant research scientist and manager of TTI’s Multimodal Freight Transportation Program. “Districts measure success in different ways — is it keeping the trains running or keeping the tracks and other infrastructure in place, or is success maintaining the right-of-way intact so that rail may return in the future?”
Multi-county RRTDs, largely focused on rail preservation, were first authorized by the Texas Legislature in 1981. In 1997, the 75th Legislature passed several amendments to the RRTD statutes, including a provision allowing single counties to form an RRTD. “These single-county districts have been chiefly formed to either enhance local economic development projects — with rail as a primary or secondary feature — or to construct new, site-specific rail transportation facilities in hopes of drawing new economic development to a rail-served industrial park,” says Morgan.
RRTDs around the state are currently pursuing a variety of projects. Examples of typical activities include:
- purchasing and rehabilitating a 15-mile rail spur in Rusk County that connects several local industries to the Union Pacific mainline;
- purchasing and preserving a 23-mile former rail right-of-way for future rail service at the direction of the legislature by the Northeast Texas RRTD;
- performing a feasibility study for building a transloading facility near the U.S.-Mexico border in Presidio County; and
- conducting several track work projects to eliminate flooding issues and move storage tracks to accommodate a second entrance to a rail industrial park near Midlothian, Texas.
Currently, there are 42 RRTDs in Texas, and as Morgan notes, the need for coordination of both local- and state-level rail planning activities is critical at this time. While many RRTDs are currently inactive, they provide a local government perspective to rail planning within the state.