The Write Stuff: A Letter to the Gov and candidates about trains

This is my letter to Governor Asa Hutchinson. I am sending a copy to the 7 candidates for Governor of Arkansas. I will also send a copy to Mike Holcomb the Chair of the Arkansas House Public Transportation Committee. Danny Watson, the Vice Chair. And David Whitaker, one of our state representatives from NWA. A version of this letter will go to the Board of ORTA, Northwest Arkansas Council, and some other people as I think of them. Or as you the members of ORBTS suggest.

The letter is a plea for two things. One, we need a Big Picture Rail Plan for Arkansas. If the Governor, whoever they may be, will promote a BPRP then many entities and people with some power and influence will know what goals to choose and strategies to use. Two, Arkansas has a chance for a portion of the $12 billion in grants for the Corridor Identification and Development Program. We need the Governor, in a move related to defining a BPRP, to ask the Federal Railroad Administration to put Arkansas on that list. I specifically ask for move for a regional route between Shreveport LA through NWA to Kansas City MO. And I ask for consideration for a High Speed Rail Intercity Route between NWA and Little Rock.

So here is a copy. I will report what I hear back, if anything, in another post.

“Please allow me to introduce myself, I’m Richard Billingsley President of Ozark Rail and Bus Transit Society. I live in Fayetteville Arkansas. I’m writing to you because Arkansas has the unique opportunity to create a wider connection to the nationwide passenger rail network. ArDOT and other eligible entities, have until the end of the year to nominate passenger rail corridors for inclusion in the Federal Railroad Administration’s new Corridor Identification and Development program. The CID program is the means thru which the Federal Railroad Administration will distribute about $12 billion in passenger rail improvement funds to states and Amtrak. ArDOT doesn’t have the authority or the will to nominate possible rail corridors. But you, Mr. Governor do. Why would you? 

Arkansas faces a number of unique challenges that include climate change, rural poverty, and a lack of opportunity. Building infrastructure including railroads, is a way to solve many of our most pressing problems. Besides, honestly we need to be proactive about our future. I’m Arkansas born and bred, but I’ve lived most of my adult life in Texas. And I have seen that reactive policies are too little too late. Reactive policies are more expensive; we can reduce costs by looking ahead and starting to build infrastructure now. For instance where I live we need to plan ahead for an NWA that has a population of over 1.2 million people about double what we have now. 

For decades we have known that burning fossil fuels are dangerous for life on this planet. We have overwhelming scientific evidence that we are releasing more CO2 than our biosphere can process. The overload of CO2 is the cause of global warming that effects the weather in Arkansas, and everywhere else on Earth. Floods, increased hot temperatures, increased storms, and harmful impacts on Arkansas agricultural production are a direct result of the build up of CO2 in the atmosphere. Our nation has dealt with pollution before and we were successful. We can do it again. 

The majority of Arkansas citizens live in poverty. Except for a couple of economic bright spots such as my corner of the state – NWA, most of Arkansas is losing population, jobs, and the result is a shrinking economy. If this trend keeps up, we will have large areas in our state that are food and pharmacy deserts if we don’t already. Young people will have no way to improve themselves through good paying jobs. Older citizens will lack a support system to live with any degree of comfort in their golden years. Too many small rural Arkansas communities have median incomes of less than $10,000 a year. This will only get worse. We can’t depend on someone to come save us. We have to do this ourselves.

The solution we can create is a bold new vision for Arkansas. A vision that combines all the issues I wrote about in this letter. A plan that will bring prosperity back to our communities. That helps reduce pollution and our dependence on not only foreign oil, a national security concern, but oil in general.

A Big Picture Rail Plan, which I propose we call The Arkansas Express Project, will help us realize these goals. We want to use expanded freight rail, not tractor trailer trucks, to deliver overnight packages from and We want to aggressively build commuter rail and/or light rail in our more urban areas such as NWA, Little Rock, and Northeast Arkansas. By the end of the year I ask you to propose to the FRA routes that connect Arkansas metro areas like NWA, and Little Rock to a nationwide passenger rail network. Yes we have the Texas Eagle but the train runs at night, we can do better. We also want a High Speed Rail system (from 125 to 160 MPH) to connect NWA and Little Rock. 

Here in NWA we have the possibility for intercity passenger rail with the merger of Canadian Pacific with Kansas City Southern. The Investment in Infrastructure and  Jobs Act gives us basic funding for railroad projects. The Inflation Reduction Act also provides money for projects that help Arkansas reduce carbon emissions and create good paying jobs. Fortunately for us, Canadian Pacific is a proponent of passenger rail. CP is even helping Amtrak open up new passenger rail routes from Dallas Texas through Shreveport LA to Atlanta GA. Then from Shreveport down to New Orleans. 

In NWA we want to see the intercity rail route, running up to 125 MPH, following the CP-KCS line from Kansas City MO down through NWA to Shreveport LA. Both Kansas City and Shreveport are major transportation hubs. Linking them with NWA will create the density necessary to justify passenger rail through connections between major metropolitan centers. If we can have trains that run several times a day rural communities benefit because residents can take the train to cities for jobs. Then bring their paycheck home to their rural communities. Communities that we know are struggling. 

A second proposed route will be a purpose built high speed passenger rail line (running from 140 to 160 MPH) connecting NWA to Little Rock. This will cover 70% of the state population. The benefits such as economic growth, improving the public image of Arkansas, and creating excitement in our state outweigh the costs. For every dollar spent on this project, we will see $6 added to our economy. 

We will get the money for The Arkansas Express Project from several sources. One, I support raising money locally for public transit. That means local sales tax money, a quarter cent sales tax will suffice. Most of that money will go to full service bus operations. But a small portion can help build stations and loading platforms. Two, the State has a $1.2 billion highway fund. Three, the State also has a $1 billion surplus in the budget. Four, we have our share of the Volkswagen Diesel Gate Settlement, about $14 million. With a modest portion of all these sources we can put together a State Rail Budget of $150 million. Then if you will propose a passenger rail route to FRA, and it’s approved, Arkansas can get 70% Federal matching funds to expand, upgrade, and improve our railroads with a total  $500 million a year budget. If we aim higher we can raise $300 million toward a $1 billion State Rail Budget.

This is money that will go to work in our communities. The Arkansas Express Project will immediately start to create as many as 10,000 high paying construction jobs across our state. Jobs paying from $60K to over $100K a year even and especially in those small Arkansas communities that are desperately poor. And it will create many other jobs too. For every construction job there will be an impact of 4+ more jobs created in the economy. There will be expanded opportunities for small business growth. A study by the state of Indiana found that real estate values around busy passenger rail stations climb 10 to 15 or more times. Locally municipalities can pass ordinances that allow mixed use retail and residential development around passenger rail stations that take advantage of the increased value of real property. This creates walkable centers in cities and towns that decrease the use of cars, saving money for consumers, and further reduce greenhouse gas emissions. This also looks good for Arkansas’s brand as we try to attract new business to our state. 

Keep in mind too, that highways don’t make money, employ people, or pay taxes. Railroads do all three. Good paying permanent railroad jobs will be created as well as new small business opportunities.

The Arkansas Express Project will cost less to than building new roads. Railroads cost about 50 to 60% less than highways. For one thing you don’t need as much land to build a railroad. And if you need to increase capacity, you buy more train sets, not expand more lanes. Another cost saving over widening highway lanes that fill up again in six months. 

So we can afford to cut greenhouse gas emissions. Create jobs, and prosperity. Use our state’s financial resources more efficiently and responsibly. And build a case for companies to bring more jobs to Arkansas. We can make it happen. We need you to endorse a Big Picture Rail Plan that rebuilds, repairs, upgrades, and expands our railroad network in Arkansas. We ask you to act because we must start now to have what we need in a few years time.” 

See you later.

2 responses to “The Write Stuff: A Letter to the Gov and candidates about trains”

  1. Well said Richard! The timing of the letter is great, as ArDOT is currently looking at updating the State Multimodal Transportation Plan. I know our ORBTS membership will be asking ArDOT to incorporate the action items presented in the letter. I hope our ORTA Board will support the actions outlined in the letter like they are currently supporting the update of the State Multimodal Transportation Plan to reflect the linkage of the NWA Metropolitan Region to the National Passenger Rail Network.

    Liked by 1 person

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