Northeast Texas Rural Transportation Summit: Deanne Simmons and Tom Halloran

Deanne Simmons, Atlanta District planner, and Tom Halloran, U.S. Department of Transportation project development representative, discussed issues presented at the Northeast Texas Rural Transportation Summit.

Whether the word or phrase is "railport" or "intermodal facility," combined truck-railroad shipping and logistics centers are needed more than ever and a good idea for rural development along the Interstate 30 corridor, according to Linda Brown.

Brown, a former Texas state representative and now a transportation consultant, led one of the presentations at Thursday's Northeast Texas Rural Transportation Summit about this issue.

In another early presentation, U.S. Department of Transportation project development representative Tom Halloran joined Brown in discussing how regional planning was key to getting funding for these facilities and other transportation development projects along I-30.

Brown said that everyone working together is necessary because of “intermodal facilities.”

Intermodal facilities, or railports, are shipping and warehousing intersection facilities. Semis can drop entire trailers or have portions of them unloaded for reshipment elsewhere. Trains can bring in containerized semi trailer boxes to be offloaded for eventual local and regional shipment by truck.

Brown tied this with Texas Department of Transportation plans for widening the interstate. She said this widening will facilitate and expedite the development of intermodal facilities.

“There’s opportunities for a lot of economic development,” she said, “one of the biggest development opportunities for rural areas.”

It is not only an opportunity, it’s something that is needed, she said.

“Freight shipping is supposed to grow exponentially,” Brown said. “We all like to have stuff. The more we want, the more that needs to be shipped.”

She said it was necessary now, not at some long-term point in the future. More warehousing room for shipping and reshipping is already needed in Texas.

"Many East Texas cities want I-30 expanded and upgraded. It should be. It is a major freight corridor, and truck traffic will continue to grow exponentially as our population increases and our desire to own things escalates," she said.

She said increased shipping to the Port of Houston, facilitated by the recent widening of the Panama Canal, was an important factor in pushing that growth.

“As Texas expands, more and more goods are going to come into the state,” she said.

She added that she had recently been to California, where she had seen another example of people working together. She said that railroads kept close cooperation with California’s Department of Transportation on coordinating highway expansions and upgrades with improvements of railroad infrastructure and highway crossings.

Halloran added that federal grants, loans and private-public partnerships could help some of this work get funded. He had information from the Department's Build America Bureau, which described the bureau as a "go-to organization to hep project sponsors develop, finance and deliver transportation infrastructure projects."

He said that grants were hard to obtain, however, as only about 3-10 percent of them are granted. Applications are scored on a grading scale that is very competitive.

Chris Brown, executive director of the Ark-Tex Council of Governments, said that many of these grants required moderate to significant matches that can range from 20 to 50 percent.

Some loans do not have matches, Halloran said. Others have a higher match percentage than grants.

However, the loans have some advantages over grants, he said. One of them was that there is no competitive scoring of applications. Another is the loan rates are low, roughly at a rate of about 3 percent on a 30-year loan. Halloran said that state and local governments, railroad companies, and special authorities and districts like economic development agencies could all apply for such projects. Keeping with Linda Harper Brown's emphasis, among eligible projects are intermodal connectors and freight transfer facilities.

Some longer-term railroad rehabilitation loans may have an interest rate of half that, Halloran said. Intermodal facilities are eligible for these projects, too. These loans are open to most of the same applicants as the first class of loans.

Thirty percent of the federal transportation loans have to be targeted to rural and semi-rural areas of less that 150,000, Halloran said.

Private activity bonds, he said, allow a local government to issue tax-exempt bonds on behalf of a private entity for highway or intermodal facilities.

Linda Harper Brown added that emphasizing safety issues were a key factor in getting awarded some grants.

“It’s the biggest selling point,” she said.

Chris Brown wrapped up the day by offering what he called his “30,000-foot view.”

“Freight traffic is going to increase by 90 percent by 2040, according to projections,” he said. “This doesn’t just affect I-30. It affects U.S. 82 and 271.”

He said that Northeast Texas was the corridor for imports from Mexico and the Port of Houston to the northeastern part of the U.S.

“If we don’t plan in advance, we’re going to look like I-35,” he said. “We’ve got so many opportunities for freight movement, but we’ve got to take advantage of this now.”

Chris Brown concluded by saying that local businesses that were interested in having their input into development planning should visit TxDOT’s website and learn about regional planning meetings they can attend.

Congressman John Ratcliffe (R-Texas) was at the meeting and also spoke about funding issues.

“I am hopeful that one of the things that will happen in the next Congress is that we will pass a bipartisan transportation and infrastructure bill that President Trump wants, that Republicans want and that Democrats want,” Ratcliffe said.

Ratcliffe represents Hopkins County and much of northeast Texas in the Fourth District.

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