Commentary: A New Approach To Regional Rail

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Rendering of a Lone Star Rail (LSTAR) stop in San Marcos. Courtesy of LSRD.

Rendering of a Lone Star Rail (LSTAR) stop in San Marcos. Courtesy of LSRD.

Last week, the Lone Star Rail District board of directors voted overwhelmingly to improve our region’s mobility by endorsing the completion of an environmental impact study already underway for a passenger rail line connecting San Antonio to Georgetown and cities in between.

By taking this affirmative stance, the Rail District retained the possibility for federal capital funding to support the project and demonstrated real mettle in the face of the Union Pacific Railroad’s recent decision to back away from the project. The board recognized that failure to complete the environmental study process would leave the region with no transportation alternative other than a relentless, continuous cycle of adding expensive-to-build new lanes to an increasingly congested and dangerous Interstate 35.

Union Pacific’s withdrawal may not be permanent. The railroad has a history of leaving, then rejoining projects (e.g. the Alameda Corridor, Metrolink in Los Angeles, Tower 55 in Dallas, Denver FastTracks, Chisholm Trail Parkway in Fort Worth) once short-term economic pressures fade. But Union Pacific’s unexpected departure provided Lone Star Rail an opportunity to reassess the project and reaffirm the solidarity of its stakeholders – including the 22 cities, counties, and agencies represented on the Rail District’s board of directors.

Last week’s vote proved the project is wanted. The daily nightmare of I-35 traffic congestion proves that the project is sorely needed. The one dissenter on the Rail District board argued that some other organization, such as the Texas Department of Transportation (TxDOT), might be better positioned to manage the project. However, we checked and learned that TxDOT doesn’t want to take over our project. Moreover, an early study undertaken by TxDOT determined that an entity specifically dedicated to passenger rail was required. That finding led the Legislature to authorize the creation of the Rail District in the first place.

A map of the proposed Lone Star Rail line. Courtesy image.

A map of the proposed Lone Star Rail line. Courtesy image.

We’ve capitalized on that independence. Lone Star Rail engineers have already identified at least five other viable track footprint options versus Union Pacific’s original proposal, including: an alignment adjacent to the railroad’s current freight line; an alignment using portions of the I-35 right-of-way, possibly elevated in sections; a more narrowly focused freight realignment effort skirting the cities, or a mix of all the above. Studying these alternatives was planned as part of the environmental impact study process, but we have advanced that work and are finding good reason for optimism regarding the long-term prospects for the project.

Those long-term prospects make Lone Star more than just a transportation project. Moving thousands of people every day between stations all along the corridor also makes Lone Star Rail one of the most exciting economic development opportunities in the country. Currently, transit agencies in California, Florida, Kansas, Oregon, and Virginia are using value capture strategies to fund transportation assets: stations, rail infrastructure, and equipment. In fact, this was the model used here in Texas more than a century ago by the land-grant railroads.

These new efforts employ public-private partnerships to undertake the regional planning, implementation, integration and development of major transportation improvements. The Rail District has proactively moved to a value-capture model and, several months ago, issued a request for expressions of interest among private sector firms who could accelerate our effort.

Lone Star Rail can deliver a critically needed transportation solution for our region and also spark increased economic vitality around its stations along the entire corridor. We intend to create investment-grade infrastructure, economic development and employment opportunities. The resulting incremental increases in tax base can generate funding to support this new transportation service.

Infrastructure is a primary driver of new investment in homes, businesses and educational facilities. Rather than being a burden on the taxpayer, Lone Star Rail can be a driver of increased investment in our community — stimulating significant new economic opportunities, adding thousands of jobs and robust growth in sales taxes. At the same time, Lone Star Rail provides a way to dramatically improve people’s quality of life, particularly those often victimized by the vagaries of I-35 congestion; a cost in terms of time and money.

Our board’s recent vote showed we are determined to bring all of these benefits to Central Texas. It’s the Texas way to persevere against unforeseen circumstances, and it’s important the public know that its leaders are moving with urgency to provide relief to our overburdened commuters and communities. This is not a time to step back, but to step up – and with your help, we will.

Top image: Rendering of a Lone Star Rail (LSTAR) stop in San Marcos. Courtesy of LSRD.

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5 thoughts on “Commentary: A New Approach To Regional Rail

  1. I’m holding out for self-driving cars. Someone should study how much Texas would spend if it subsidized the purchase of a self-driving car for people who commute more than 25 miles through certain identified high-traffic corridors (such as 35 between SA and north of Austin, 281/1604 in SA, I-10, 45, and 610 in Houston, etc. etc.).

    Compare that to the cost of this rail project—no doubt useful, but which would serve only a very limited geographical area—and let’s see.

  2. “[LStar has] already identified at least five other viable track footprint options…, including: an alignment adjacent to the [UP’s] current freight [sic] line; an alignment using portions of the I-35 right-of-way, possibly elevated in sections; a more narrowly focused freight realignment effort skirting the cities, or a mix of all the above.”

    I suppose it all depends upon how one might define “viable.” It seems only logical to stick with an English dictionary’s approach: “effective, feasible, possible, practical, workable, suitable, realistic.”

    It might be argued that any or all of the above mentioned alternatives could be “possible” in the most general of terms, presuming an unlimited budget – but that begs the question: is it “realistic” to presume ANY public infrastructure project would be blessed with such a budget?!

    Granted, additional infrastructure within the existing former Missouri Pacific right-of-way seems to make sense, until you realise a truly independent passenger-only line would require at least a 25-feet separation from UP’s nearest track and would therefore, by definition, restrict future expansion of either UP’s or LStar’s level of service – not very “practical,” “suitable” or “realistic.” If I was representing either group’s interests, I’d be adamantly opposed to such an approach.

    The Interstate 35 idea would essentially require a complete rebuilding of the current roadway, since it was not engineered to the standards required by railroad operations. It was difficult enough to convince anti-tax zealots that public funds were required to simply add one additional main lane each way. Can you IMAGINE a project which requires the complete realignment and reconstruction of major swaths of the existing freeway?! [That’s a rhetorical question, by the way.]

    I’m not sure I understand what is meant by a “freight realignment…skirting the cities.” Certainly, if a new line is closer to exiting urban/suburban/exurban development, the necessary right-of-way for a by-pass route would be far more expensive and difficult to obtain (requiring, for example, the use of eminent domain proceedings), yet any “freight” line outside of the existing corridor would still be inadequate when serving current customers. To be blunt, I see no possible advantage to the creation of a through freight alignment which would come any closer to the corridor cities than the line which has already been identified.

    As the planning process moves forward (as it is – and should), it behooves us to address some basic misunderstandings:

    1. The proposed LStar service is NOT “light rail.” Light rail is a form of rail-based transit, most closely resembling the Interurban cars of years gone by.

    Lone Star’s plans involve full-sized trains operating upon general system trackage, similar to the Trinity Railway Express commuter service between Fort Worth and Dallas. Such equipment includes amenities like tables, toilet facilities and cold water fountains – absent from transit vehicles.

    Granted, Light Rail Vehicles are able to handle sharper curves and steeper hills than the typical commuter/regional train; but, they are far less comfortable for longer trips. An L.R.V.’s top speed would also be quite a bit slower. LStar’s overarching vision is correct: we do not want “light rail” between San Antonio and Austin, even if that means an Interstate 35 service alignment might be possible!

    2. Union Pacific’s lines between San Antonio and Austin – both the former Missouri Pacific and the former Missouri-Kansas-Texas (“Katy”) routes – are currently used by Amtrak and are not literally “freight lines.” In fact, the very term “freight railroad” is a misnomer, initially coined for marketing purposes in order to distance the railroad industry from government supported passenger operations.

    Arguably understandable, but consistently confusing.

    3. Lone Star’s eventual success in improving the existing UP railway lines along this corridor could also mean greatly improved intercity service between San Antonio, Austin, Temple and Dallas (as well as points beyond).

    This is but one example where a comprehensive transport/energy/environmental policy would help direct our growth and aid in the planning and execution of multi-modal transportation projects!

    There is no logical reason why several rail-based passenger and freight projects could not be dovetailed together and completed in tandem.

    Sadly, the political world is rarely logical.

    4. The idea that existing UP infrastructure should be exclusively dedicated to passenger service is not sound. This concept has gained far to much traction and should have never been accepted as accurate.

    The proposed by-pass line would be for through freight service only. If a UP train has no local business within the city, it would be routed via the new alignment, thereby reducing the number of long, slow and relatively noisy freight trains which now run through established neighbourhoods. This is similar to the way tractor/trailer rigs transporting hazardous materials are instructed to take loop roads around the heart of San Antonio – unless they have a local delivery to make.

    Still, local freight service would – and should – continue to utilise existing trackage. There is no reason why these freight services should inhibit passenger operations.

    Shared right-of-way (all passenger trains, along with freight trains with local business) is not only reasonable, but eminently practical. Our friends at the Trinity Railway Express handle all that traffic and more, on a daily basis – and do so quite successfully.

    5. The Union Pacific’s desire to pull out of their initial agreement is a negotiating ploy, pure and simple. Moreover, if I worked for that road, I’d have recommended the same action!

    No organisation should presume another firm will patiently wait an indefinite period of time for plans to fall into place! UP’s executives would not be considering their shareholders best interests, needs or rights if an open-ended agreement was allowed to stand without question or time limit. The railroad lines and the land upon which they sit are private property and it is the UP’s right to dictate how that property will be used. Surely, we can understand and accept that fact!

    When LStar is in a position to come back to the negotiating table with cash in hand, when they are ready to bargain in good faith various matters such as potential liability, ad valorem tax burdens and maintenance costs, when the reasonable questions concerning capacity and future growth are addressed (on both sides), and when the political will to support this initiative becomes evident, everything will fall into place.

    The LStar project is needful, cost-effective and marketable.

    No one ever said it would be easy!

    Garl Boyd Latham

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