Monday, October 16, 2006

State Railroad an Issue in Texas Ag Commissioner's Race

Hank Gilbert, the colorful rancher running for Texas Agriculture Commissioner, is trading barbs with his Republican competition, State Senator Todd Staples. At the center of the debate is the future of the historic but ailing Texas State Railroad.

It's an odd issue given that the state's next agriculture commissioner will have no direct authority over the historic landmark. But it has many voters talking because the railroad operates from the heart of Staples' East Texas Senate district, and because problems with the railroad have become largely emblematic of a park system long neglected by the Legislature....

The railroad, which was built with prison labor about 100 years ago, runs 25 miles between Palestine and Rusk. It has continued commercial operations off and on throughout much of its history - sometimes carrying freight, sometimes passengers, sometimes making money, sometimes not - and then in 1972 it was turned over to the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department.

Lately, it's not only not making money, it's facing retirement if enough funds cannot be procured to cover it's operating losses and the estimated $12-$30 million needed for short- and long-term maintenance.

Tourism from the railroad generates significant revenue in Senator Staples district. Staples cites his committment to the preservation of the railroad, including the establishment of the Texas State Railroad task force and his support for various fundraisers. There is just one problem.

The railroad is in the path of the Fastrill Reservoir. Fastrill Reservoir, being pushed primarily as a water supply for Dallas, would be built astride the Neches River.

The reservoir would destroy more than 25,000 acres of forest — an area being considered for a national wildlife refuge. It also would drown much of the railroad.

Last year, the Texas Senate passed a resolution expressing its support for creation of Fastrill Reservoir.

The resolution was introduced by Staples.

Gilbert sums it up.

"The economic impact of that railroad is huge to his hometown - and the fact that it's a state park, and a historic monument - and he was willing to sacrifice it for a reservoir; that's unacceptable," said Gilbert, 48.....

Gilbert says the state wouldn't be in this bind if Staples and other lawmakers had provided enough money for the parks department.

But the Fastrill Reservoir may never see the light of day. It's in the path of the proposed Neches River Wildlife Refuge. You see, the railroad runs over 25,000 acres of prime bottomlands, considered by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to be among the best remaining habitat of its kind. Staples maintains that the Fastrill Reservoir would accommodate the railroad. Putting aside the estimated $100 million that would cost, the Fastrill Reservoir is controversial for some other reasons.

Additional reservoirs on the Neches (such as Fastrill) would impact the very-water-dependent Big Thicket National Preserve, two national forest wilderness areas, a state wildlife management area, and other significant downstream natural resources that depend on upstream flood flows to maintain habitat diversity. The Upper Neches is prime habitat for Texas Parks and Wildlife Department’s project considering reintroduction of the endangered black bear in Texas. The refuge site is in the debris field of the wreckage of the space shuttle Columbia and has been proposed as a memorial to this national tragedy. Fastrill reservoir would also impact the Texas State Historical Railroad.

In the end, Staples would sell out the railroad and the land to satisfy the water developers. Wouldn't you like to see one state office occupied by someone who had the best interests of all Texans in mind? You can help make that happen. Click here to support Hank Gilbert for Commissioner of Agriculture.

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