Off the Kuff Rotating Header Image

freight rail

Texas Central and Lone Star Rail

Noted for the record.

In South Central Texas, 20 state legislators have revived talk of a San Antonio to Austin passenger rail line. Area lawmakers signed a letter in August asking Transportation Committee chair and state Rep. Terry Canales (D-Edinburg) to study the possibility of rail between the two cities.

On Wednesday, rail in Texas was the topic of a panel discussion that included [Holly Reed, the managing director of external affairs of Texas Central], State Rep. Ray Lopez (D-San Antonio), and Tyson Moeller, general director of network development for Union Pacific railroad, at a San Antonio Chamber of Commerce transportation committee meeting.

The discussion, which was closed to media, touched on passenger rail between Austin and San Antonio, freight rail, and the Houston-Dallas high-speed rail project, according to Jonathan Gurwitz, vice president of communications company KGBTexas and chair of the San Antonio Mobility Coalition who attended the meeting.

He was most struck by a few numbers that Union Pacific’s Moeller cited: Approximately 15,000 to 20,000 semi-trucks worth of goods are shipped on trains every day passing through San Antonio. That means 15,000 or so fewer trucks on Interstate 35.

“If you think of it in that way, what impact rail really has on San Antonio, the amount of goods and services that move in and out of our region by rail, it has an extraordinary impact on our economy,” Gurwitz said. “I think most people in San Antonio don’t realize the significance of rail.”

Union Pacific remains focused on moving freight and not people, said Raquel Espinoza, senior director of corporate communications and media relations at Union Pacific. The railroad company effectively killed an earlier Austin-San Antonio passenger rail project when it exited the Lone Star Rail District proposal in 2016.

Union Pacific has no plans to expand passenger rail access for other entities like Amtrak on its lines, Espinoza said.

“Our role is to move freight in an efficient, environmentally friendly way,” she said.

See here for the recent news that Lone Star Rail may rise from the dead again. I’m very much at a “believe it when I see it point”, especially with Union Pacific reiterating its long-held stance that they are not going to share their existing tracks for any passenger rail. A rail line between Austin and San Antonio – really, between Georgetown and the south side of San Antonio, as the original LSR envisioned – makes all kinds of sense, but it becomes a lot more expensive and problematic from a right-of-way perspective if a whole new set of tracks have to be laid down. Not impossible, one assumes, and certainly doable if the will is there. It’s just that there’s many years of evidence to show that it does not, at least not in sufficient quantities. But hope springs eternal, and I will always hope that somehow, some way, this gets built.

Will Lone Star Rail get resurrected?

Maybe!

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.

[…]

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.”

The last we heard about this was in 2016 when the previous plan died, in part because of a failure to come to an agreement with Union Pacific to share its tracks. On the one hand, a passenger rail line between San Antonio and Austin makes all kinds of sense and would be a fantastic alternative to the money and traffic pit that is I-35. On the other hand, well, the past couple of decades trying to get this line even to a preliminary approval stage with no success doesn’t bode well. But maybe this time it’s different. I’m rooting for it, but my expectations are firmly under control. The Current has more.

RIP, Lone Star Rail

This really does appear to be the end of the line.

On a 17-1 vote late Monday, the Capital Area Metropolitan Planning Organization board decided to kick off a two-month process to remove from its official 25-year transportation plan the proposed 117-mile rail line from San Antonio to Georgetown. A final vote will have to be taken in October, but the tenor of the discussion and the lopsided vote made it clear that Lone Star will soon be history.

San Marcos Mayor Daniel Guerrero voted no. Travis County Commissioner Brigid Shea and TxDOT Austin district engineer Terry McCoy abstained.

“We are going to look for real solutions up and down (the Interstate 35) corridor and stop living in a fantasy land,” said Hays County Commissioner Will Conley, who chairs the CAMPO board and carried the motion to oust Lone Star from the transportation plan.

In the intervening 60 days, at Austin Mayor Steve Adler’s request, TxDOT and local officials will take one last stab at trying to get Union Pacific — whose rail line runs through the heart of the Austin-San Antonio corridor — to come back to the negotiating table. For its entire history, Lone Star’s focus has been on using the UP line for its commuter service.

[…]

The resolution approved Monday also asks TxDOT to direct Lone Star to stop spending money on an $8 million environmental impact study of the line. If that occurs, Lone Star — which after $30 million of spending produced various engineering and financial studies but yielded no real progress toward funding the line — would be out of business.

It will almost certainly occur, a TxDOT official said Monday evening before the vote.

“If they (the CAMPO board) make that local decision to remove the rail line from the plan, we will sit down with the Federal Highway Administration and Lone Star and figure out how to conclude the environmental process,” said Mark Williams, TxDOT’s deputy executive director. “Which, in effect, would mean a ‘no build’ conclusion.”

See here, here, and here for the background. Lone Star Rail had worked all along to get Union Pacific to agree to share its freight tracks for its proposed commuter rail line, and when UP finally said No, there was no plan B. It’s a shame it’s come to this, because the idea of commuter rail between Austin and San Antonio has a lot of merit, but in the end Lone Star Rail could not get it done. There’s always the hyperloop plan, so keep hope alive. CAMPO member Cynthia Long and the San Antonio BizJournal have more.

UPDATE:: The Current offers a small bit of dissent.

More on commuter rail to Fort Bend

The Chron picks up the ball.

HoustonMetro

In a blog post for Off the Kuff, a local progressive politics blog, former Fort Bend Democratic Party chairman Steve Brown said now is the time for local officials to form a commuter rail district. Under state law, the district, if formed, could work with Metro to develop the line and apply for grant funding.

“Adding a commuter rail district would ensure better local accountability and avail us to more options to secure private investment, issue revenue bonds or even impose taxes to finance this project,” Brown said.

[…]

Rail districts are not unique to the Houston area. The Gulf Coast Rail District – which spans a large part of the Houston region – has a host of freight and passenger rail projects in mind, though it lacks funding for many of its major projects. Gulf Coast is already empowered to act as a commuter rail district, said its executive director, Maureen Crocker.

In fact, Crocker said, Gulf Coast is preparing for more study of a freight rail bypass in the same rail corridor around U.S. 90A that Metro is exploring for its rail line. The freight bypass could make commuter rail along the tracks more likely, as it could address concerns by freight haulers that passenger trains would delay their operations.

Though a regional rail district has a role, Brown said he envisions Metro working with a more focused commuter rail district to develop the 90A line.

“I feel pretty strongly that empowering an entity comprised of local Fort Bend community and business leaders to take the lead on this project is the only way to ensure that it happens,” he said.

Importantly, a dedicated district could be a conduit to increased state investment, he said.

Always happy to help move the conversation along. I’m also happy to have the Gulf Coast Rail District involved, whether as the lead entity or as a component. Whoever is at the rein, let’s get started on a vision for where this line ought to go, and what action is needed by the Legislature to facilitate it. State a vision, get stakeholders behind it, and let’s get moving.

Lone Star Rail reboot: It’s all about the money

Isn’t it always?

The message was clear: If San Antonio-area officials aren’t willing to commit millions of dollars to planning a regional passenger rail line, Austin-area officials will reconsider their financial commitment to the project.

The Capital Area and Alamo Area metropolitan planning organizations met Wednesday to discuss the status of a proposed passenger rail line known as LSTAR and what role the agencies should have in it. The project, which would connect San Antonio and Georgetown, recently suffered a setback when Union Pacific pulled its tracks from a possible route.

In February, UP nixed the Lone Star Rail District’s proposal to use the company’s freight line tracks that parallels Interstate 35 for passenger rail service. The district, a government-funded agency that represents counties, cities and organizations in the I-35 corridor, is in the midst of an environmental study that has focused heavily on that route.

The district’s board met last week to discuss alternate routes — which could include building new tracks parallel to I-35 or Texas 130 — and voted to continue the environmental study by examining those options. But several officials at the joint MPO meeting expressed concern about the effect UP’s decision could have on the cost and timeline of a project that already has been under discussion for more than a decade.

“The financing of it is really a big question mark,” said Bexar County Commissioner Kevin Wolff, vice chairman of the Alamo Area MPO. “We’ve already done a lot of work (on planning). Will we be able to utilize any amount of that data in choosing a different alternative?”

In 2007, the Alamo Area MPO set aside $20 million for the passenger service. Those funds, reserved for final design, right-of-way acquisition and construction, have not been spent yet.

In 2011, CAMPO also gave the district $20 million, nearly $12 million of which has been spent on planning the line. The board debated freezing the remainder late last month but ultimately decided to take a closer look at the project and reconsider the issue in June.

Hays County commissioner Will Conley, CAMPO’s chairman, said the board’s final decision on the matter could depend on whether the Alamo Area MPO agrees to foot some of the costs of planning the rail service. He said that commitment would demonstrate San Antonio-area officials’ confidence in the direction of the project.

“There are a lot of us — a majority of us — on the CAMPO board who have lost a lot of confidence in where we’re currently at,” he said. “Are you comfortable with the status quo? If you’re comfortable with the status quo, we would very much like you to make a commitment on the rest of the environmental document.”

See here and here for the background, and click over to the Express News story to see a map with the different route options specified. If the Union Pacific decision to not allow LSR to use its right of way is the death knell for this project, then the planning organizations’ eventual decision to reallocate funding will be the shovel and dirt to bury it. If they vote to keep the funding going, then there’s still a chance. We’ll see how it goes.

Lone Star Rail: Not dead yet

Just a flesh wound, actually.

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.

[…]

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.

[…]

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.

See here for the background. I have no idea how badly UP’s pullout affects the long-term likelihood of this project, but it can’t be good. I have always believed the concept has merit, but if they can’t use existing tracks, the price tag may well be too high. We’ll see if the governments that had been involved in this so far remain on board or not. The Statesman and the Current have more.

Lone Star Rail setback

Bummer.

Union Pacific dealt a major blow to a proposal to connect San Antonio and Austin with passenger rail by pulling one of its tracks from a possible plan.

UP ended its agreement with the Lone Star Rail District to study the feasibility of running passenger trains on a freight line that parallels Interstate 35. The idea underpinned the district’s plans to build the passenger rail line, known as LSTAR, between San Antonio and Georgetown.

The agreement, signed in 2010, allowed UP and the district to study the corridor and the possibility of relocating the freight line. But Jeff DeGraff, spokesman for Union Pacific, said the district’s proposals didn’t adequately address concerns about how the passenger rail would affect the company’s freight operations.

“We chose to cancel the (agreement) and move forward with other projects and other things we need to deal with,” he said. “We just don’t think they’ve been able to come up with an arrangement that’s suitable for the needs of freight railroad as well as a passenger railroad.”

[…]

Bill Bingham, an attorney with the Austin-based law firm McGinnis Lochridge, said UP announced its decision in letter Tuesday. His firm represents the district.

“It was a bit of a surprise,” he said. “We thought really that we had been able to answer any concerns they had as we were proceeding.”

The district is in the midst of an environmental impact study that examines several possible routes for the passenger train, and Bingham said it could revise the plan if the UP tracks stay off-limits. But the UP tracks were the district’s best chance of advancing a proposal more than a decade in the making.

“That is really not a good thing,” said District 9 City Councilman Joe Krier, a longtime proponent of the passenger train. “You have to have an agreement with UP at some point to have access to their right of way.”

The decision could be a major setback in the district’s plans to secure a public-private partnership to establish the service. Several cities, including San Antonio, have put money toward planning the train service, but the district lacks the $2.4 billion needed to build it and relocate the UP route.

See here and here for the background. It’s a shame, because this isn’t an insurmountable obstacle, it’s a financial one. You’re not going to find a road-based solution to add capacity between Austin and San Antonio for $2.4 billion, and SH130 has clearly demonstrated that rerouting traffic around those cities has plenty of problems as well. Building a rail line in this increasingly populous corridor – remember, New Braunfels, San Marcos, and Georgetown are also growing like gangbusters – makes a lot of sense. This ought to be doable with a combination of local, state, and federal money. It sure would be nice if we could figure it out. The Statesman, Austin Business Journal, and KSAT have more.

Bringing commuter rail into downtown

From The Highwayman:

290 Commuter Rail options

As has been reported, the Gulf Coast Rail District is studying the best possible routes for commuter rail in the Houston area, and one of the biggest challenges is bringing the trains into downtown. From the looks of the initial analysis of the U.S. 290 corridor, the trip to the central business district might have some unexpected stops along the way.

Relying on potentially available right of way, the analysis conducted by Kimley Horn & Associates found that the two most feasible routes from a hypothetical train station at 43rd Street and Mangum Road would largely rely on land next to existing freight rail lines, heading east, then south, or south, then east. The study involved finding a route where land would be potentially available without obstacles like buildings. Those who did the study also were tasked with avoiding flood-prone areas, environmental impacts and technical challenges. Officials also had to avoid affecting the major freight railroads, said Maureen Crocker, executive director of the rail district.

One scenario would send the line eastward parallel to the BNSF Railway tracks, then south along land near where Harris County plans to extend the Hardy Toll Road inside Loop 610. From there, the trains would briefly use space next to the Union Pacific Railroad’s main line, into the Amtrak station near the downtown U.S. Post Office.

The other option would bring the trains south along Mangum Road and Post Oak Boulevard before heading east along Katy Road and then parallel to the Union Pacific tracks north of Washington Avenue and into downtown.

[…]

Commuter rail — not the light rail system that Metropolitan Transit Authority has built — would bring travelers from much longer distances than light rail would, connecting areas far outside the Sam Houston Tollway. If Houston ever developed a robust regional passenger rail system, Lott said, the potential northwest station could be the hub of up to eight rail lines, coming from as far as 100 miles away.

The addition of passenger trains could also revitalize the downtown Amtrak station, which only serves a handful of passenger trains each week. In other cities where transit and train service has led to increased traffic, train stations are experiencing a renaissance.

See here for the background. This conversation has come up before, most recently as I recall about a decade ago when one of the options was to bring the line through the Heights, along the former rail right of way that is now the White Oak bike trail. Needless to say, that’s not on the table. You can see the presentation with all of the routes that were considered this time at the link above. I don’t know much about the northern path that would go to the Hardy Toll Road right of way, but the Katy Road/MKT option would basically run along one possible path for the Inner Katy light rail line, if it ever gets onto a drawing board. It might make sense to build a station or two along the way for this configuration, given the population and employment locations along Washington Avenue. I just hope that if they do this, they consider doing something about the rail crossings at Durham/Shepherd, Heights, Sawyer, and Houston Avenue. Traffic gets snarled up enough with the infrequent freight train schedule; with commuter rail frequency it would be a nightmare, especially at Durham/Shepherd. I’m sure that will add another hundred million or two to the price tag, but come on. The need and the benefit are obvious.

East End community meeting to consider Harrisburg grade separation

From the Inbox:

East End community meeting to consider Harrisburg grade separation

Wednesday, June 15

Union Pacific’s East Belt rail subdivision is one of the busiest in the city, carrying more than 30 freight trains a day through Houston’s East End. For years, the crossing at Harrisburg has created delays and headaches for motorists and trains alike. The City of Houston first targeted this crossing for grade separation in 1953. Harris County recommended an underpass at this location in 2004. The Gulf Coast Rail District identified this crossing as a priority in 2009.

METRO is currently constructing the East End light rail line down Harrisburg. They must either go under or over the freight rail line, which poses a timely opportunity to finally grade separate the road and the freight line as well. The remaining questions are whether to construct an underpass or an overpass, how much it will cost, and who will fund the improvements.

For more than three years, East End business and neighborhood leaders have fought for an underpass. An underpass will be less obtrusive, require less right-of-way, and project less noise than an overpass, minimizing impacts to Harrisburg businesses. It will also will provide a neighborhood-friendly crossing that’s accessible to bicycles and pedestrians. They recognize that the success of METRO’s rail transit investment depends on creating pedestrian-friendly development around stations, and that an overpass is likely to stymie that process. The underpass proposal has widespread support from both businesses and residents in the East End, including:

  • Greater Eastwood Super Neighborhood (SN 64 & 88), Eastwood Civic Association, Houston Country Club Civic Association, Magnolia Pineview Civic Club, East Lawndale Civic Association, and Idylwood Civic Club
  • East End Chamber of Commerce, East End Management District, Harrisburg Merchants Association, and Historic Harrisburg

In 2010, the City of Houston commissioned a study to determine the cost differential between two overpass options and an underpass. The study estimates that an underpass will cost $43.4 million, or $13.4 million more than a vehicle overpass. You can review the draft executive summary (4.7 mb pdf) which explains the options but does not include final cost estimates. The City should release the final Harrisburg Grade Separation report this week. City leaders have identified some of the funds needed for the underpass, but a significant gap remains. There’s potential to defer other City capital projects to make up the difference, and also for Harris County Commissioner Jack Morman and Union Pacific to help close the gap.

Community meeting Wednesday!

On Wednesday night, Mayor Parker, Council Members Gonzalez, Rodriguez, and Noriega, and METRO CEO George Greanias will host a community meeting about the grade separation. You’re invited hear an update on the state of funding for the project, and have the opportunity to express whether other projects in the City’s capital improvement program (CIP) for the area should be deferred to help the underpass move forward.

What: Harrisburg grade separation update meeting
When: Wednesday, June 15, 2011 from 7:00 pm to 9:00 pm
Where: Ripley House, 4410 Navigation Blvd, Houston, 77011 (map)

I realize money is tight, but in the grand scheme of things $13 million isn’t that much, especially considering the benefit those extra dollars will yield. Everyone with a stake in this – the city, Harris County, Metro, the Gulf Coast Rail District, and so on – should do whatever it takes to get this right. Those of you who live in the area, please do your part and show up to tell them so. Thanks to the CTC for the heads up.

Safety train

I’m passing along the following press release from Metro for those who might be interested:

METRO TO UNVEIL WRAPPED RAIL CAR PROMOTING SAFETY

WHAT: The NEW METRO will unveil a rail car wrapped in a bumper-to-bumper decal promoting safety along rail lines.

WHEN: 9 a.m., Tuesday, Jan. 18, 2011

WHERE: METRO’s Rail Operations Center, 1601 W. Bellfort St.

WHO: METRO Board Chairman Gilbert Garcia; METRO Board members Judge Dwight Jefferson and Allen Watson; and, METRO President & CEO George Greanias. Joining METRO are special guests Houston City Council members Brenda Stardig and Wanda Adams, and Houston Police Chief Charles McClelland and other local law enforcement representatives.

WHY: Safety is one of the seven operating principles of the NEW METRO. This wrapped rail car encourages motorists and pedestrians to exercise caution along METRORail tracks and freight tracks throughout the region.

Here’s a map to the location if you need it; it’s basically a block west of the Fannin South station.

Where’s Wal-Mart?

Wal-Mart has bought a tract of land near the Heights.

The store would be part of a larger development just south of Interstate 10 near the northwest intersection of Yale and Center.

[…]

A development site plan obtained by the Houston Chronicle shows a 152,015-square-foot Walmart flanked by a parking lot for 664 cars and additional retail spaces for a bank, fast-food restaurant and other stores.

[…]

Retail sources said the new Walmart likely would be one of the chain’s Supercenters, which average 185,000 square feet and combine full grocery and general merchandise, according to the company’s website.

In addition to serving residents in the Heights and other surrounding neighborhoods, the new store would seek customers from a growing population around the Washington Avenue corridor.

Swamplot and Prime Property have more on this. Here’s the question I have: How are people going to get to this place?

Google map view of the area

Google map view of the area

Here’s a link to that Google map; click the thumbnail for a larger image. The only real access to this site will be via Yale. The freight train tracks to the south completely cut off traffic except at Heights, Yale, and Patterson off to the west. Note that Bonner, the west end of this site, dead ends at the tracks. You can’t walk there from Heights Blvd except from Center. Koehler, to the north, only connects at Patterson. How are people going to get there?

You could, I suppose, connect the two pieces of Bonner, which would help. (Would the developer pay for that, I wonder?) You could also connect Bonner and maybe Bass Court to the eventual I-10 service road extension that will link Durham/Shepherd to Watson/Sawyer. (Note that as of today, you can only access Yale from I-10 on the westbound side.) I don’t know what the timeline is on any of these things, nor do I know if such connections are part of TxDOT’s plan. I do know that if you’re depending on Center Street to move traffic, I’d be worried. Center is a narrow little road on which traffic flow can be impeded by someone parking, and it’s used by a lot of trucks because of the various industrial sites that remain in the area. I figure the developers have a plan for all this, I just can’t quite picture it myself.

Finally, I have to wonder what the Super Neighborhood 22 folks think of this. It doesn’t seem to fit in with their vision for the Washington corridor. I’m getting an Ashby Highrise feeling about this. Typically, there’s already a Stop Heights Wal-Mart Facebook page. I don’t much care for Wal-Mart and don’t foresee myself shopping there – our Costco membership and the Target on Sawyer meet our needs quite nicely, thanks – but it doesn’t offend me that they’re looking at this parcel. I just don’t see how they’re going to make it work.

One more thing:

H-E-B said it recently made an offer on the Ainbinder parcel but was later informed that a counteroffer from Wal-Mart Stores was accepted, spokeswoman Cyndy Garza-Roberts said.

“We will continue to look for sites to bring an H-E-B to the Heights,” she said.

No question that there’s a crying need for a grocery store around there. If the Wal-Mart in question includes groceries, that may ameliorate the complaints somewhat. But the questions about how do you get there from here would remain had H-E-B won the bid. Marty Hajovsky and Nancy Sarnoff have more.

Streetcars on Washington Avenue?

Some big things may be coming to Washington Avenue.

Super Neighborhood 22 — a council of civic clubs in the Washington Ave. corridor — will hold a meeting May 24 to discuss its proposed master plan for transportation in the area.

To deal with increasing development, density and congestion, the neighborhood envisions a streetcar on Washington Ave. to move pedestrians and a trench near Center Street capable of carrying four freight or commuter rail lines, allowing traffic to pass uninterrupted overhead.

The neighborhood’s meeting is scheduled for at 6:30 p.m. at DePelchin Children’s Center, 4950 Memorial Drive. The super neighborhood, one of 88 such groups in the city, covers the space between Buffalo and White Oaks bayous and between the West Loop and Interstate 45.

Super neighborhood president Jane West and vice president Tom Dornbusch said the meeting aims to gather input from community members in hopes of building a consensus around the plan, giving it more weight with policymakers.

“We’re trying to get ahead of the game, instead of letting all these other entities decide where the best place is to put transit through our corridor,” West said. “We’re trying to decide where and how that transit should be directed.” West and Dornbusch both cited Harris County’s plans for commuter rail along U.S. 290 as a reason for action. Many of those commuters work downtown, West said, and must pass through Washington Ave. to get there.

“Super Neighborhood 22 is in the direct path of that route,” Dornbusch said.

I highly recommend you take a look at their detailed presentation of the various options. I got a much better idea of what they had in mind after looking at it. I was all set to write something about how I didn’t like the idea of streetcars on Washington Avenue because that seemed like giving up on the idea of an Inner Katy light rail line, but they’ve got it more than covered. I love the trenching plan for freight and commuter rail lines, and the streetcar network they envision to complement it makes a lot of sense. There’s more, too – sidewalks, hike and bike trails, and so forth. Give it a look, and attend the meeting on Monday if you can.

TxDOT’s shell game

State Sens. Jeff Wentworth and Wendy Davis, and State Rep. Ruth Jones McClendon show in this op-ed how TxDOT is trying to move money that the Lege specifically designated for rail to roads.

Transportation advocates won a hard-fought victory during the 2009 legislative session by securing $182 million in financing for the Texas Railroad Relocation and Improvement Fund, created by the voters through a constitutional amendment passed in 2005 but never funded. Sadly, the state’s transportation bureaucracy at the Texas Department of Transportation is using a budgetary shell game to thwart the will of the Legislature and steal this victory from the public.

“This is wrong,” as Chairman John Carona told the Senate Transportation and Homeland Security Committee last fall. “It smacks of trickery.”

[…]

The $182 million budget rider passed by the Legislature was contingent upon a finding by the state comptroller that there was at least as much money available for roads in the current budget (2010-11) as was available in the last session’s budget (2008-9). TxDOT actually worked with legislators negotiating in good faith to create this formula, and the conditions were clearly and unequivocally met.

Until the Legislature left town, that is.

After the session ended, TxDOT subsequently came up with the disingenuous argument that money allocated to run the new Department of Motor Vehicles was a diversion from TxDOT and should count against certification of the budget rider — ignoring the fact that when the Legislature transferred funding to the DMV it also transferred all of the functions and employees to the new agency: a net zero of budgetary impact.

Even the new chairman of the DMV — the honorable Victor Vandergriff — recognized this accounting trick as a ruse intended to deny rail advocates their victory and so testified to the Senate Transportation Committee, prompting Chairman Carona to say that “the game was rigged” against rail funding.

Remember how KBH tried to make an issue of TxDOT’s mismanagement in the GOP gubernatorial primary? The combination of her general ineptness as a campaigner and Perry’s successful move of the issues to things like secession and who hates government more made that go nowhere. That’s a shame, because this latest move by TxDOT is typical of what the agency has been under Rick Perry, and it deserves more scrutiny than it got during the primary season. I presume the Lege will once again roll up a newspaper and try to swat it on the nose to make it behave, but as with many things in this state, it will ultimately require new leadership to bring about real change.

A win for the Washington Quiet Zone

Some good news for those who live in and around the Washington Avenue corridor.

Come late April, train horns should be quieter through the Washington Avenue corridor from just north of Interstate 10 to Harvard Street.

Union Pacific and two other railroads use the rail line that parallels the corridor, and federal rules currently require them to signal their approach to road intersections in the area. Residents who live nearby are weary of the horns, which sound day and night, and have been working to create a quiet zone for years.

I’ve said before, I can hear those horns from inside my house more than a mile away, and they sound at all hours. This will be a huge improvement in these folks’ quality of life.

Don’t let politics get in the way of commuter rail

For once, we have a broad consensus about the need to build rail lines. Let’s please not let turf war pissing matches be an even bigger obstacle to getting them built than old-fashioned opposition ever was.

Three agencies are actively promoting commuter rail schemes: the city of Galveston, the Metropolitan Transit Authority, and the newly formed Gulf Coast Freight Rail District. The latter is a partnership among Houston, Harris County and Fort Bend County; Waller and Galveston counties plan to join soon.

Political insiders say it’s urgent that all the jurisdictions come together — and soon — or risk jeopardizing Houston’s position in the national competition for federal dollars. Even with local political consensus and federal funding, most estimates are that it would take at least five years to get a system running.

“It’s probably past time to get all the boys and girls in the room and get on the same page,” said Galveston County Judge James Yarbrough. “So when we interface with the federal partners and elected officials, we don’t send them conflicted messages and they don’t have to get involved in local squabbles.”

Harris County Judge Ed Emmett is backing the freight rail district, formed in 2007 to deal with freight rail congestion, especially around the Ship Channel.

The freight district has no funding, but expects $2 million in federal stimulus money. It will use that to study how to put commuter trains along U.S. 290 toward Hempstead, and along Texas 3 between Houston and Galveston.

The freight district has a close relationship with the primary local railroad, Union Pacific, which must consent if commuter trains are to use its tracks along 290 and 3.

Emmett argues that the rail district should lead, because it eventually will include all three counties between Galveston and Hempstead.

But critics suggest that Emmett is getting ahead of himself. And some see a duplication of efforts in the rail district’s use of stimulus funds to study commuter rail along Texas 3, when the city of Galveston is already conducting a study on that route.

I don’t really care who wins on any of this. What matters is that it gets done and that it gets done well. Ultimately, whether this all falls under the jurisdiction of one agency or multiple ones, they’re going to have to interoperate in a way that makes it convenient for a passenger to step out of one train and onto another, whether they be commuter rail, light rail or even high speed rail, which will hopefully be a part of this network in the future. As long as it all works and gets people where they need to go, the rest is just details. Christof, who was quoted in the story, has more.

Ten transportation opportunities for the next mayor

Christof has a list of ten transportation opportunities for the next mayor, having to do with trains, roads, parking, infrastructure, and other matters, that I hope all of the candidates read. I encourage you to read it as well.

Fixing freight rail

Good story about freight rail in and around Houston and its present and future needs.

The recession has eased the rail traffic problem temporarily, but transportation leaders warn the reprieve will not last. Houston’s population will grow and the widening of the Panama Canal could bring a massive influx of shipping containers to Houston’s port starting in 2014. Train freight could triple by 2035, according to the Houston-Galveston Area Council, a planning agency.

But clearing the blockages in the rail system will not be easy. “Everyone agrees the system is broken,” [Mark Ellis, chairman of the Gulf Coast Freight Rail District] said. “But there’s a lot of fear of change and people wondering who would pay for it.”

Freight railroads are private businesses, and the big players in Houston have already been spending money to upgrade tracks and switches and keep traffic moving through. But they want public help for the more expensive solutions, like building bridges to separate streets from railroad tracks. In exchange, the railroads may consider sharing their tracks or rights-of-way with commuter trains.

When interstate highways were built, many people thought railroads would wither away. Across Houston and elsewhere, rail corridors were sold off and developed. But now railroads seem poised for a comeback.

They have triple the fuel efficiency of trucks, and that makes them cheaper and less polluting.

In Houston, moving freight onto rail could help a lot with air quality: While commercial trucks account for less than 10 percent of vehicular traffic, they emit more than half the region’s nitrogen oxide (the primary ingredient of smog), according to the Houston-Galveston Area Council.

Freight trains could move more smoothly through Houston if there were bigger rail yards and fewer points where roads and tracks cross. The Ship Channel is also a big geographic barrier.

If you haven’t already, read this Washington Monthly article from January about investing in freight rail; see also this post by Christof. Ideally, some of the things that need to be done here and elsewhere would receive state and/or federal funds. I can see some of this happening at the federal level, if we ever get past the health care debate. It just makes a lot of sense.

Improving the freight rail network may also allow for more commuter rail.

Although it is done elsewhere, Union Pacific, which owns most of the tracks in Houston, would prefer not to share its tracks with commuter trains. “We would have concerns about the safety of commingling commuter and freight operations,” said Joe Adams, a vice president for public affairs. “And we have concerns about losing present and future freight rail capacity.”

That means that commuter rail along U.S. 90A is scarcely a possibility right now. That route, which would serve commuters in Sugar Land and other Fort Bend areas, is a critical Union Pacific route, bringing in containers full of Asian-produced goods from ports in California.

But two other freight lines have less traffic, and Union Pacific is working with government planners to free them up for commuter trains. One runs out the U.S. 290 corridor and one runs along Texas 3 to Galveston. TxDOT is considering granting $2 million in stimulus funds for two engineering studies on those routes.

“My goal is to have trains running in three years,” said Harris County Judge Ed Emmett.

That would be a huge accomplishment if it can happen. The pieces are coming together, though there are still a lot of issues, including getting the trains inside the Loop and connecting them to light rail lines. The story notes that there’s an abandoned freight rail line that runs through the Heights that isn’t being considered for use right now, as Judge Emmett doesn’t want to fight that battle. My understanding of this is that it wouldn’t necessarily be all that disruptive to the surrounding areas, but there would need to be a lot of communication done with the neighborhoods to get everyone to buy into the idea. I hope some of that happens while progress is being made on the rest of it. Christof has more.

Over/under

Some East End residents are still unhappy about the way the Harrisburg light rail line is shaping up.

East End residents overwhelmingly supported the rail line in a 2003 referendum, thinking it would boost the redevelopment already taking place. Back then, however, Metro’s plans did not include a mammoth, six-block-long overpass to cross existing Union Pacific freight rail tracks at Hughes or a rail car maintenance facility near Harrisburg.

Neighborhood residents still support the rail line, but some residents and civic leaders worry the planned overpass will split the neighborhood and inhibit future redevelopment. They also don’t like the extra industry that will be added to the area by the four-block-long rail maintenance facility.

Since Metro announced the plan last summer, residents have grown increasingly resentful and complain that the transit agency is not considering their concerns.

The tension was evident two weeks ago when some community residents and leaders implored City Council and Mayor Bill White to “stop this preposterous overpass.”

For what it’s worth, the issue first came to light in March, at which time the plan was to simply stop the line before the freight tracks. A month later, an agreement was reached to bypass the freight rail tracks one way or another.

Metro’s board voted on the Harrisburg line in June 2006 after more than 70 community meetings, agency spokesman George Smalley said.

Many argue that the overpass would shut off a portion of the boulevard and increase noise throughout the neighborhood.

The proposed overpass, planned to span from Cowling to 66th, would rise 26 feet above a rail line, tall enough to allow a double-stacked rail car to pass below. It would accommodate light rail trains, two traffic lanes and sidewalks.

“It’s going to be just massive,” said Robert Gallegos, president of the Houston Country Club Place Civic Club. “It would be a blight for generations to come that live in the East End.”

Some have called on Metro to build an underpass instead, saying it would be cheaper and less disruptive to the neighborhood.

They cite a 2004 Harris County report that estimated the cost of an underpass at $16 million.

Smalley dismissed the report as dated and said it did not take into account the cost of the actual rail line.

Metro has estimated the cost of an overpass at $45 million. Going under the freight rail line instead would drive the cost anywhere from $67 million to $81 million, Metro estimates.

“It’s long past time for planning and process,” Smalley said. “It’s time to build a better future.”

Councilman James Rodriguez, who represents the East End, agrees with Metro that an overpass is the only feasible option.

“My goal is to get a rail line built on time and allow it to serve my constituents,” he said.

In a letter to his constituents, Rodriguez said that continued debate jeopardized funds promised for the line.

“We run the risk of losing the line all together if we do not move forward and begin discussing the design of an overpass,” he wrote.

That overpass does sound massive. I can definitely understand the concern. I’m not sure that an underpass, if intended for the light rail line and the vehicular traffic, would be any less disruptive, however, since it would probably need to be about as long. I suppose the ideal solution would be to build an underpass for the freight rail line, but I’m guessing that’s out of the question. Not sure what else there is to say, other than Metro needs to engage the community in the design of this thing. Groundbreaking for this line was in June. It’s time to get moving.

The case for freight rail

I’ve seen this linked several places, and finally got around to reading Phillip Longman’s article on freight rail and the very strong case for investing in it as part of an economic stimulus package. It’s got something for everyone, including the promise of relieving highway congestion by getting big trucks off the interstates. Read it and see what you think.