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Don’t let politics get in the way of commuter rail

For once, we have a broad consensus about the need to build rail lines. Let’s please not let turf war pissing matches be an even bigger obstacle to getting them built than old-fashioned opposition ever was.

Three agencies are actively promoting commuter rail schemes: the city of Galveston, the Metropolitan Transit Authority, and the newly formed Gulf Coast Freight Rail District. The latter is a partnership among Houston, Harris County and Fort Bend County; Waller and Galveston counties plan to join soon.

Political insiders say it’s urgent that all the jurisdictions come together — and soon — or risk jeopardizing Houston’s position in the national competition for federal dollars. Even with local political consensus and federal funding, most estimates are that it would take at least five years to get a system running.

“It’s probably past time to get all the boys and girls in the room and get on the same page,” said Galveston County Judge James Yarbrough. “So when we interface with the federal partners and elected officials, we don’t send them conflicted messages and they don’t have to get involved in local squabbles.”

Harris County Judge Ed Emmett is backing the freight rail district, formed in 2007 to deal with freight rail congestion, especially around the Ship Channel.

The freight district has no funding, but expects $2 million in federal stimulus money. It will use that to study how to put commuter trains along U.S. 290 toward Hempstead, and along Texas 3 between Houston and Galveston.

The freight district has a close relationship with the primary local railroad, Union Pacific, which must consent if commuter trains are to use its tracks along 290 and 3.

Emmett argues that the rail district should lead, because it eventually will include all three counties between Galveston and Hempstead.

But critics suggest that Emmett is getting ahead of himself. And some see a duplication of efforts in the rail district’s use of stimulus funds to study commuter rail along Texas 3, when the city of Galveston is already conducting a study on that route.

I don’t really care who wins on any of this. What matters is that it gets done and that it gets done well. Ultimately, whether this all falls under the jurisdiction of one agency or multiple ones, they’re going to have to interoperate in a way that makes it convenient for a passenger to step out of one train and onto another, whether they be commuter rail, light rail or even high speed rail, which will hopefully be a part of this network in the future. As long as it all works and gets people where they need to go, the rest is just details. Christof, who was quoted in the story, has more.

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  1. […] everyone something to work towards. Anyway, Emmett wants the Gulf Coast Freight Rail District to be on point. No matter who manages regional commuter rail, it must tie seamlessly to the Metro light rail and […]