Despite Setback, Lone Star Rail Moves Forward

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A Union Pacific train passes underneath the Hays Street Bridge. Photo by Scott Ball.

Scott Ball / Rivard Report

A Union Pacific train passes underneath the Hays Street Bridge east of downtown.

The decision by Union Pacific to end its working relationship with Lone Star Rail District (LSRD) in February, was a blow in efforts to develop a passenger rail line between San Antonio and Austin.

But in a special meeting Friday in San Marcos, district directors reaffirmed their commitment to find a  solution to growing traffic congestion along the Interstate 35 corridor.

The district’s board of directors voted 12-1, and asked the organization to continue its current Environmental Impact Study process, and ensure that the process includes all alternative options.

Union Pacific informed the LSRD board on Feb.9 that it would terminate Memorandum of Understanding between the two organizations. Lone Star Rail had tried to determine how it could use existing freight lines for passenger rail, and shift freight traffic to a new rail between Georgetown and San Antonio.

UP officials then said the district had not adequately addressed questions about how a passenger rail system would impact the company’s freight system.

LSRD board members, in a special meeting, went over the progress of the district’s environmental impact process and current list of options. The district did pause work on the alternative involving UP, and moved onto focusing on exploring other options.

Many board members said Union Pacific’s choice to stop working with Lone Star Rail was disappointing, but that they hoped the company would return. The completion of the impact study is crucial to the project, because it would enable future funding, including federal money. The district expects to finish the environmental impact process by 2018.

John Rinard, senior programs director at Parsons Corp., an international construction and engineering organization, told the board that Union Pacific has a history of taking part in large-scale transit projects elsewhere in the country only to step back or withdraw altogether. In some cases, UP would return to a project.

“What you’re experiencing is not unique in the business world,” Rinard said, adding that rail companies such as UP are often concerned about project factors such as liabilities.

District officials have lauded the option of turning a UP freight line into a passenger line as a solid project that benefits all stakeholders, including cities along the I-35 corridor that would like to see a reduction in freight traffic at busy intersections.

Lone Star has envisioned a passenger rail system with 19 stops along the corridor. The district has been looking at potential routes for an different freight line east of I-35. Supporters of the project see it as a way to improve safety for motorists along the corridor, and decreasing vehicular congestion, seen as a negative to continued economic development.

“This looks like an upside for us and our communities,” board member Brigid Shea, a Travis County commissioner, said of the project. She added she has difficulty understanding UP’s decision to end its MOU with Lone Star.

“Sometimes it’s cyclical, and even I still can’t understand why they walked away from previous deals,” Rinard replied.

Rinard suggested that the Lone Star board, which includes several elected city and county leaders from all along the I-35 corridor, assert its political will and press forward with its goal of passenger rail.

“I wouldn’t say stop,” he said. “I cannot see them walking away from the project permanently. It’s a fantastic project. It has all the good points.”

Other alternatives being evaluated by LSRD include using the State Highway 130 corridor, the abandoned MoKan rail alignment, and new right-of-way parallel to the Union Pacific mainline, as well as hybrids of these options.

Board members said they understand the process to arrive at solutions for I-35 is long and complicated, but necessary.

“We need to consider the region as a whole,” said Diane Rath, a board member and executive director of the Alamo Area Council of Governments. “In 20 years we’ll be a region of 7 million people. Using the same infrastructure is going to be untenable.”

“Mobility both of freight and people is of vast importance,” added board member Richard Gambitta, retired director of the UTSA Institute for Law and Public Affairs.

John Thomaides, a board member and San Marcos City Council member, said allowing growth of the rate of freight traffic that goes through his city would negatively impact the neighborhoods and businesses close to that freight line.

“We have 23 at-grade railroad crossings. We can’t afford to have them blocked by 40 to 80 (train) cars per day,” he added.

Will Conley, a Hays County commissioner and board member, cast the lone dissenting vote on Friday. He felt the board’s decision indicates to the public and stakeholders that there has not been enough detailed dialogue about the other options the district is exploring.

“I appreciate your opinion. I don’t agree with it. To say we have not taken input is absolutely incorrect,” replied board Chairman Sid Covington, who represents Austin’s business community.

Following the meeting, Joe Black, deputy executive director for LSRD, said in a news release that his organization remains committed to a “mission to provide reliable, predictable and safe regional transportation.”

“Over the next few months, we will continue to engage with our stakeholders and work cooperatively with our transportation partners to keep moving the project forward,” he added.

 

Top Image: A Union Pacific train passes underneath the Hays Street Bridge.  Photo by Scott Ball. 

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14 thoughts on “Despite Setback, Lone Star Rail Moves Forward

  1. An elevated rail down the center of I-35 would be perfect. One of the problems with “rail” going forward is the vulnerability of the tracks to terror attacks. Being elevated over I-35 would give an extra layer of difficulty for the bad guys.

    Lets do it.

  2. Historically speaking, so much of the rail infrastructure in this country was publicly financed (directly or through sweetheart deals) and built on land grant property. It was a wise and necessary public investment the resulting in legendary economic expansion. Then, later the rails were unwisely sold off in many cases at fire sale prices (and for great profit for the railroad companies that bought them). It’s always bothered me the degree to which the major rail companies resist cooperating with public entities when it comes to sharing (for fees) or expanding rail services for the public good. The rail rights-of-way should have never been let go. I wonder what the next example of public investment that will seem out-of-fashion and dumped too easily for private gain, only to be rethought later might be? Learn from history?

  3. The entire LSRD team needs to resign and make way for some proven executers. They have proven to be ineffective to date and only serve to be a organization that is marketing an idea. You need people that can actually make this a reality.

  4. For now, San Antonio could help demonstrate the need for regional transit to Austin by using the regional transit option we do hav to Austin – affordable (typically $5-$10 one way) private bus (Greyhound and Megabus).

    Lack of demand seems to have caused Megabus to pull way back on San Antonio-Austin scheduled runs since they first launched in town (and/or Greyhound out-competed them on price, schedules and comfort). More demand for regional bus to Austin might help to restore and/or increase Megabus offerings.

    Regional bus riders already know that Greyhound is an ultra-affordable way to get to Austin airport from downtown San Antonio (with a weird hike & local bus from Airport Blvd) . . . but a harder way to get to downtown Austin (expect an hour long local bus ride or tough walk / bikeshare / light rail combo).

    Regional bus riders also know that Megabus is better positioned in both cities – but that conveniences near the San Antonio Megabus stop are lacking.

    In Miami, both Greyhound and Megabus as well as other private buses stop both at the airport and downtown, supplementing a tremendous local and regional public transit system (including rail) that utilizes the airport like a ‘multi modal’ transit hub.

    With luxury regional bus Vonlane set to offer San Antonio service this year, the City should be thinking about how it can improve regional bus offerings downtown as well as at the airport (incentivizing stops?) and to and from small towns along the LSTAR route – along with improving VIA bus services and walking and cycling along the proposed LSTAR route in San Antonio.

    San Antonio / Bexar County also clearly needs to lead a system like CARTS (which operates in part from Greyhound Austin) as far north as San Marcos to strengthen connections with SAT and downtown as well as with the Austin region http://www.ridecarts.com/

    LSTAR is a far-off possibility at best, but there’s much that San Antonio could do now to improve local and regional transit by 2018 if not sooner.

  5. Given the importance of highest speed passenger rail, there is significant logic is planning to build new rail corridors where the real estate can support upgrade of tracks on that corridors to support 225 mph trains.

    Unfortunately it is really expensive to build new corridors, so typically it is best to start with a slow passenger service on the legacy freight rail corridor, and use the affordable tracks for growing downtown stations, downtown mass transit rail to that rail station (subways, elevated trains, light rail, streetcars, and supporting commuter rail), and fund expensive rail connections from downtowns to nearest airports, before building a new HSR right of way from scratch.

    Using the legacy rail line allows the metro regions to build up the downtown rail hub, and get real estate developers building near the hub to increase markets for all passenger rail services.

    The premium airport express rail (PAER) concept is extremely important, because it can move many more train and people per day than simple intercity trains typically do, at high speed rail prices. Moving all budget San Antonio passengers to Austin for shorter budget flights north east, for budget flights to cities like Chicago, can create very large audiences, and massive capacity between a downtown and a local airport. This can be extended from the downtown to the next downtown.

    PAER from San Antonio to Austin could massively build up a major portion of the Dallas to San Antonio corridor.

    • Come on, Nathaniel: “highest speed passenger rail”? “legacy freight rail corridor[s]”? “premium airport express rail (PAER) concept”?

      Really?!

      Why don’t we keep it simple and forget all the 21st century professional transport planner mumbo jumbo?

      Conventional passenger train service is not necessarily “slow,” nor is the speed of a train something for which one should apologise.

      There is no such thing as a literal “freight rail corridor.” That’s a marketing term. Railroads are railroads – and existing infrastructure can (and does*) handle both passenger and freight traffic.

      [*The majority of Lone Star Rail’s proposed route already hosts regularly scheduled Amtrak service.]

      We don’t need “PAER” from San Antonio to Austin in order to “build up a major portion of the Dallas to San Antonio corridor.” Lone Star Rail, as currently conceived, could also serve as the southern portion of that “corridor.”

      Nathaniel, I have no doubt we’re fighting for the same team. Still, specific technologies, routes and service plans are ultimately meaningless when the political will to actually DO something does not yet exist.

      Kevin Wolfe is the Bexar County Commissioner for my precinct. I’ve tried speaking with him – upon several occasions – concerning the Lone Star passenger train service plan. He’s totally uninterested (and not a little insulting). San Antonio’s mayor (Taylor, the streetcar slayer) is just as bad.

      Ironically, San Antonio’s transit system, VIA, owns and controls both extant [ahem] “legacy” downtown passenger train station facilities, yet neither one are currently used for railway passenger traffic, nor are there any substantive plans to alter that fact. Interestingly, Amtrak operations are housed in a small and barely adequate structure adjacent to the former Southern Pacific (a.k.a. “Sunset”) depot.

      I could go on, but I’ve had a sufficient dose of reality for the morning.

      Take care.

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