Valérie Eiseler / Rivard Report
A coalition of San Antonio and Austin state representatives has asked the House Transportation Committee chair to study the possibility of passenger rail between the two cities ahead of the 2021 legislative session.
Congestion between the two cities will only increase, the legislators wrote, costing drivers time and money.
“Improved transportation connectivity is critical for the Austin-San Antonio corridor,” 20 legislators said in an Aug. 16 letter. “We must not only look at how to utilize our current assets most effectively, but also find new and creative solutions for this corridor. As members of this region, we believe that it is imperative for the House Transportation Committee to explore new opportunities for our constituents to have frequent, safe, and dependable transportation.”
Officials from the Austin and San Antonio areas have been trying to connect the two cities by passenger rail for years. The Lone Star Rail District proposal stalled after Union Pacific pulled out of the project in 2016 over concerns about how passenger rail using its tracks would impact its freight operations. The Capitol Area Metropolitan Planning Organization (CAMPO) pulled its funding for the project later that year, leaving the Alamo Area Metropolitan Planning Organization (AAMPO) few options for keeping the project alive.
The rail line proposed by the Lone Star Rail District would have had multiple stops, starting at the University of Texas A&M-San Antonio and ending in the north-of-Austin suburb Georgetown.
Rep. Ray Lopez (D-San Antonio) served on AAMPO’s board and as the city councilman for District 6 during passenger rail discussions. He said the corridor rail project took many blows but could be revived with proper action from the State.
“Texans have engaged in overviews and reviews, but what we need to do is have a strong directive from the state … and request or require or demand, indeed, that some action plan be created and presented to the Legislature for consideration and ultimately funding,” Lopez said.
Rep. Terry Canales (D-Edinburg), chair of the Transportation Committee, said Friday that he had received multiple requests – known as interim charge requests – to study passenger rail between Austin and San Antonio before the next legislative session. During that time, committee chairs read through the requests submitted to them, then submit their own requests to House Speaker Dennis Bonnen. Bonnen asked for all requests to be submitted to him last Saturday.
“I believe that passenger rail between two of our biggest cities in Texas is an issue that the House Transportation Committee should look at this interim,” Canales said in a prepared statement. “As our state continues to experience explosive growth, we must consider all options to get Texans from point ‘A’ to point ‘B.’ That being said, it is absolutely imperative that the state examine multimodal systems for future implementation. Increasingly, Texans are looking for transportation options that do not involve them sitting behind the wheel of a vehicle stuck in traffic.”
Like others who signed the letter, Rep. Barbara Gervin-Hawkins (D-San Antonio) pointed to the importance of connecting San Antonio and Austin for businesses along the Interstate 35 corridor.
“It provides another transportation option and encourages economic development including job creation, connects rural counties to their neighboring urban cities, and helps reduce roadway congestion in major metropolitan regions,” Gervin-Hawkins said in an email. “Investments in an alternative transportation solution, like passenger rail trains, will foster real estate development around rail stations.”
Rep. Ina Minjarez (D-San Antonio) said she gave her support to the interim charge request because gridlock on I-35 is growing unmanageable.
“What’s really important is it gives data,” Minjarez said of studying the issue. “It gives the good and the bad. It gives a deep analysis of this particular issue for the entire legislative body to see and look at.”
She and other legislators who signed the letter were rallied by Rep. Celia Israel (D-Austin), who was able to gain some bipartisan support for her interim charge request – of the 20 signatures, three came from Republican representatives.
“If you look at that letter, that’s a ton of legislators that understand the important role that passenger rail could play, and it’s also a ton of legislators that have cities and counties and school districts within that area,” Israel said.
Rep. Steve Allison (R-San Antonio) emphasized that he signed the interim study request letter with the understanding that rail is simply one potential solution.
“The inclusion of possible use of existing rail line and service for enhanced passenger service as a possible option towards reducing congestion is simply that – a possible available option for study along with other options or approaches,” Allison said in an email.
Minjarez said the success of rail relies on political will.
“I think seeing the signatures on that letter from San Antonio and Austin area, we have that political will,” she said. “Now it’s up to leadership to see if they want to embrace talking about this subject.”
San Antonians have rejected rail before, but as a local means of public transportation. Voters shot down light rail in 2000 and in 2015 approved a charter amendment requiring light rail proposals go to voters.
But if an intercity rail project starts up again, Mayor Ron Nirenberg said San Antonio would support it “if the state worked with us and we found a path forward for rail between Austin and San Antonio.”
“It has been a priority for this community for almost three decades,” he said. “And I’ve always said it will happen once the governor’s office makes it a priority.”