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Lone Star Rail District

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.

How about a commuter hyperloop?

This sure sounds interesting.

Navigating right-of-way for land development can be like drawing blood from fiercely independent landowners. But a San Antonio technology startup is banking that it has cracked the code to prying some surface rights from Texans by borrowing a concept familiar to them — royalties, not eminent domain.

Oil and gas companies routinely knock on doors of Texas ranchers and cattle owners to offer mineral royalties in exchange for leasing surface rights to conduct deep drilling operations. But instead of a heavy industry use, these surface rights would be for a clean technology powered bullet train that runs inside an above ground pipeline structure and offer profit dividends.

A bullet train building startup called Transonic Transportation LLC that recently relocated to San Antonio from its roots in Louisiana has its eye on an alternative to the Lone Star Rail project — a commuter train line that would connect downtown San Antonio to the urban core of Austin along the I-35 corridor that’s been abandoned by Union Pacific after a deal fell through.

The startup claims that eminent domain won’t be as much of an issue since the train platform is held up by concrete pylons rather than laid on the earth. So hypothetically, landowners could still have access to travel underneath the tracks, if necessary.

The company plans to use hyperloop technology, a trademark of SpaceX, a research and development firm. Hyperloop refers to a train inside a tube that glides on a magnetized track. But the California tech giant SpaceX, doesn’t have plans to commercialize it.

[…]

The prototype still in design phase could transport between 6,000 and 12,000 passengers per hour and cost between $8 to $12 per trip for consumers.The funding structure would be that of a public-private partnership rather than a bond supported or taxpayer-subsidized effort.

Transonic Transportation’s co-founder, Joshua Manriquez is a civil engineer by training and now has a team working on blueprints and patent pending technology for a Texas hyperloop train system.

Manriquez was part of the Louisiana State University team that made it through the design phase during the competition in early 2016 held by SpaceX. Since then, the startup has secured a 1-mile-long test track in Mississippi and aims to raise roughly $300,000 in a seed funding round within the next year. The company also has a testing facility in San Antonio.

“We’re getting closer to patent a lot of the designs that we have. We’ve been talking to a lot of big companies that are interested in the project but they are saying it’s all going to come down to economics,” Manriquez said in an exclusive interview. “As far as working with Lone Star Rail, it could be a beneficial relationship but that’s going to come down to whether or not they want to pursue anything like that.”

Manriquez said he’s reached out to Lone Star Rail and is waiting for a response but would move forward independently on a Texas hyperloop train system once the funding is secured.

“I have reached out to them about doing a feasibility study funded by TxDOT. There’s a research grant that’s available to transportation studies, but I’ve yet to hear back from them,” he said. “I wouldn’t be surprised if we were sitting down to a set of plans 10 years from now and deciding on a contractor.”

Here’s their website, where they claim the trip time would be 15 minutes. I’ve blogged a few times about hyperloops – see here, here, and here for more on them. The Lone Star Rail proposal to connect Austin and San Antonio may or may not be dead, so if nothing else this is an intriguing possible alternative. It’s also a creative way around the possible eminent domain issues that Texas Central is facing, though there’s no guarantee of that. In any event, I look forward to seeing if this idea gets any traction. Link via Streetsblog, and Texas Monthly has more.

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.

Everybody wants in on the rail action

We’re like a magical land of opportunity for high-speed rail interests.

For more than three years, Japanese-backed Texas Central Partners has drawn attention with its plans to develop a Dallas-Houston bullet train. While that project is furthest along, French and Chinese rail interests are more quietly discussing the prospects for rail projects with state and local officials.

“There comes a time when adding lanes is not a solution anymore, and that’s when you realize you need more public transportation,” said Alain Leray, president of SNCF America, the U.S. subsidiary of French rail operator SNCF. The company has been talking with Texas officials in earnest for about a year about potential rail projects, Leray said.

Chinese-backed rail interests have also approached some transportation officials in Texas about future projects, several transportation officials confirmed.

[…]

If passenger rail projects take off in Texas, many international firms will be logical partners, said Michael Morris, transportation director for the North Central Texas Council of Governments.

“The people you want to talk to are the people with extensive experience with high-speed rail,” Morris said. “High-speed rail isn’t built in our country, so most of the people with experience in high-speed rail are from other countries.”

Morris has heard from foreign rail firms for years, but solicitations have picked up over the last 12 months, he said, as state and federal studies of the environmental impact of rail projects in Texas have moved forward. The Federal Railroad Administration is studying Texas Central’s proposed Houston-Dallas project and the Texas Department of Transportation is studying the prospects of passenger rail as far north as Oklahoma City and as far south as Monterrey.

“Everyone in the world knows you can’t complete anything without an environmental clearance,” Morris said.

Ross Milloy, executive director of the Lone Star Rail District, which is trying to build a passenger rail line between Austin and San Antonio, said he has also noticed increased interest from international rail firms over the last year and a half.

“I think they view Texas as fertile ground,” Milloy said.

[…]

Just because multiple international firms are looking at Texas doesn’t mean they’ll all work together. Leray said he has talked to officials about the importance of developing a robust high-speed rail network in Texas, rather than just the Dallas-Houston segment. Among the concerns he raised in a Texas Tribune interview is that Texas Central’s line would be built specifically for Shinkansen trains and wouldn’t be able to accommodate other trains. SNCF operates rail systems in Europe that support trains by multiple manufacturers.

“If you choose a system which is not technologically neutral, you’re locking the people of Texas into being served by a monopoly,” Leray said. “And I ask, is this what the people of Texas want?”

In response, Keith pointed to the Shinsaken’s safety record — no collisions or derailments in more than 50 years of operation.

“By operating a single train technology, signaling and core operating system, Texas Central can leverage the history and record of the high-speed rail experience in Japan to ensure the safe, predictable operation of its trains,” Keith said.

[…]

Beyond Texas Central Partners’ Dallas-Houston line, the project appearing to draw the most interest is a rail line between Dallas and Fort Worth. TxDOT created a special commission last year to look at the prospects for such a project. Bill Meadows, chairman of that commission, said the assumption is that such a project would develop with a private partner.

“The state doesn’t want to be in the high-speed rail business,” Meadows said. “There’s enough private sector and regional interest that I see it moving forward in that fashion.”

The Dallas-Fort Worth line has outsized importance, Meadows argued, because it could someday connect a Dallas-Houston line with a train that travels along the state’s crowded I-35 corridor to Austin and San Antonio.

“It is the linchpin that ties the two corridors together,” Meadows said.

Didn’t know there was a fight over what kind of train technology to use on the line. When the lobbyists start getting involved, that’s when you know it’s gotten real. I don’t have anything to add, I’m just glad to see all this action. The Press and Paradise in Hell have more.

Lone Star Rail updates

From last week, San Antonio City Council gets set to make a financial commitment to the Lone Star Rail line.

San Antonio is expected to make its first financial commitment to building the Lone Star Rail line next week when city council members vote for a budget that includes $500,000 for the project.

[…]

San Antonio Council member Joe Krier says the next step will be an agreement with Lone Star Rail on San Antonio’s financial commitment to the project for the next five years.

Krier says the Alamo City’s annual obligation could rise to $2 million during that initial contract, but there would be protections.

“My concern is that we make sure when we get that agreement that taxpayers in San Antonio are protected, in that we know exactly what we are paying; that there’s a locked-in cap on it, because a lot of these projects fail because of cost; and we need to have an exit ramp that would allow us to bail out if we want to. Lone Star has said they’re comfortable in doing that.”

Krier is a big fan of the rail line. In addition to taking vehicles off the road, he believes the train would make college more affordable for some of the 250,000 students who live along the corridor.

“If Lone Star Rail just picked up 5 percent of those (students) that would be 7,500 students a day. It means a student can live one end of the corridor, attend school in another end of the corridor, and get back in the same day so they can stay at home with their parents,” Krier said.

Krier says city dollars will pay for engineering and administrative costs, and for financial negotiations with Union Pacific. He says Lone Star representatives have assured him there are private investors willing to bankroll capital costs, which include the purchasing of rail cars.

See here for the background. There are still some entities than LSRD intends to hit up for cash, but so far so good for them. This follows on the heels of getting Bexar County to pony up.

Bexar County’s $1.7 billion budget that was approved Tuesday includes $500,000 for the Lone Star Rail District.

While the funding received a green light, no agreements are in place yet, according to a county spokesperson.

Lone Star Rail District Director Joe Black said he’s also asked the City of San Antonio and VIA Metropolitan Transit for start-up funding. The rail agency will also ask for funding from Alamo Colleges, Black said.

Again, so far so good. The real test will be once LSRD has these commitments in hand to start delivering on their own promises. I’ll be keeping an eye on it.

Lone Star Rail District to ask SA Council for funding

Not so much for now, but over time there will be real money spent.

Officials with Lone Star Rail District (LSRD) have asked City Council to allocate up to $500,000 in the city’s 2016 fiscal year budget to help fund staffing and consulting services in anticipation of the $2-3 billion passenger rail project.

Lone Star Rail (LSTAR) project supporters see the project as a means for commuters to avoid congested roads between San Antonio and Austin and the potential for economic development and higher educational opportunities in one of the fastest growing regions in the nation.

LSRD officials made their case for initial funding during the Council’s B session on Wednesday. The plan includes improving the existing Union Pacific railroad that runs parallel to Interstate 35 between San Antonio and Austin for passengers at an estimated cost of $800 million. LSRD would first build a $1.6 billion freight line east of San Antonio that would take on the freight traffic of the exiting line. These one-time capital construction costs would be funded by state and federal grants as well as the private sector. But first, it needs assurances from municipalities along its route from San Antonio to Georgetown, just north of Austin, that they will pay for continued maintenance and operations of each stop.

The idea is to pull 18,000 vehicles, or 20,000 people, off I-35 daily. LSRD proposes 16 station locations, including six in the San Antonio area, one in New Braunfels and one in San Marcos. The inner city locations would be Loop 410 at the San Antonio International Airport, the University of Texas at San Antonio Downtown campus, Port San Antonio, and Texas A&M University-San Antonio.

“It’s a very big, complicated infrastructure project,” said Tullos Wells, vice chairman of the LSRD Board of Directors representing San Antonio. “You can’t solve all of the congestion and the risks it poses to the economic vitality in our region by pouring more concrete alone. Lone Star Rail alone won’t solve all the transportation problems in this region, but it’ll be a very important part of the solution. We’re going to have two million more warm bodies along this corridor in the next 25 years and we need a way to move them.”

At full capacity, there could be up to 32 trains running per day, including midday and evening service in each direction for commuters, students and other regional travelers – depending on demand. The system would support a 75-minute express service from downtown San Antonio to downtown Austin with stops in San Marcos and New Braunfels. LSRD promises modern, safe passenger cars with wireless Internet access, especially beneficial to business travelers and college students.

If all goes well, San Antonio’s $500,000 initial contribution in FY 2016 would consist of funds from the City’s general fund budget and property tax revenue derived from Transportation Infrastructure Zone (TIZ) around the LSR stations.

There would be continual financial commitments each year over the duration of a 36-year funding agreement, which would accompany a 36-year TIZ agreement. LSRD officials pledged not to seek any other funds from San Antonio’s proposed FY 2016 budget. Deputy City Manager Peter Zanoni explained that in 10-year increments, from 2021 to 2051, TIZ funds would cover most of the annual funding commitment with San Antonio.

Financing for the entire system is supposed to be split among San Antonio, Austin, and a coalition of seven “smaller” yet major cities along the LSR route, including Schertz and New Braunfels. LSRD estimates that annual funding for the system could reach $75 million by 2050, split among participating cities and taxing entities.

See here for some background. The LSRD still has some gaps in its long-term funding plan, and they’re still working on getting other cities to pony up, but that ought to be solvable. I support this project and I absolutely agree that just pouring more concrete will not solve the region’s mobility problems, but I’d like to see the LSRD aim a bit higher on its ridership numbers. Eighteen thousand cars a day off the road isn’t nothing, but it’s less than half of what the SH 130 boondoggle is currently doing. Maybe they’re being conservative in their projections, or maybe they need to add more trains so the service is more frequent, and figure out how to pay for that. Maybe they need to pay more attention to the question of how people get to and from the stations to their destinations. Whatever the case, this region needs a robust solution.

Lone Star Rail faces Council vote in San Antonio

It’s a big step.

While there is little opposition to the idea of a commuter rail line (the LSTAR) between San Antonio and Austin, the City takes serious pause when confronted with the yearly costs of operation and maintenance.

But there are no tax or fee increases on the table, [Lone Star Rail District Director Joe] Black explained. “And we have not asked any city to make a dollar commitment.”

Instead, LSRD has been working with municipalities to form Transportation Infrastructure Zones (TIZ) unique to each city. The zone would establish a perimeter around each station – there are five proposed so far in San Antonio – and a percentage of property tax increases within the zone would go directly towards LSRD’s operation and maintenance costs.

Where are these property tax increases coming from? The stations themselves, as the property value surrounding them will, almost certainly, rise as the amenity comes to the neighborhood. Most agreements, like the one with San Marcos, also includes a sales tax revenue contribution. Austin City Council approved a 56-year agreement, with commitment stipulations, in December 2013.

LSRD is currently working with City staff on an agreement unique to San Antonio, but will likely have the same elements of agreements with other cities, Black said. The cities of Kyle, Buda, and Round Rock have yet to draft final agreements. Georgetown, New Braunfels, and Shertz city councils will likely vote on final agreements in August. Once local agreements are met, LSRD will be hunting for investment from federal, state, and private entities to foot the $2-3 billion bill for the commuter and freight lines. Once the Environmental Impact Statements are complete, and the new freight line relocation is complete, then work can begin on the commuter rail.

If all goes as planned, Black said, the LSTAR will begin trips in 2021 or 2022 – about 17 years in the making.

Interstate 35 is one of the most congested interstate segments in the U.S., most of which is because of commuter and truck traffic. About 80% of Mexico’s trade with the U.S. and Canada comes through the bottleneck on I-35. More than 9,000 accidents occur between San Antonio and Georgetown, the LSTAR’s northernmost stop, resulting in about 100 deaths per year.

“The LSTAR could provide the (transportation) equivalent of eight additional highway lanes (four lanes in each direction),” Black said. “The space implications are huge — moving more vehicles isn’t going to do it, we have to move people.”

The 118-mile commuter line would utilize existing Union Pacific lines, but not until after a new freight line is constructed in the east – a critical step for the LSTAR operation. While local freight will still use the old line through San Antonio, regional freight will be diverted to the new line, freeing up time and space for the LSTAR to provide reliable, frequent trips.

[…]

Black said there will also be consideration for bicycles on the LSTAR. Connecting the stations to transportation options that complete that “first mile/last mile” portion of travel – like bikes, bikeshare, rideshare, or bus transit to get to final destinations.

See here for the most recent update. I’ll be interested to see how this debate plays out as the vote approaches. LSRD is going to need federal money to make this happen – I suppose they could be in line for some state money, but I don’t have much belief that TxDOT will do anything – and they will have a much easier time making a case for themselves if the cities along the way have all bought in. I’ll keep an eye on this.

Lone Star Rail District update

Haven’t heard from these guys in awhile.

According to [Lone Star Rail District], the [proposed rail line] will provide essential relief from the I-35 highway congestion. The express trip from downtown Austin to downtown San Antonio would take 75 minutes.

Completing the project, however, crawls slowly forward as the approval for the train involves several different counties, including Austin, Bexar, Travis, Hays and Williamson.

In January of 2015, the LSRD hosted several informational events in both Austin and San Antonio with the intention to gain support for local and state funding of the project.

The rail system will cost taxpayers roughly $1.7 billion.

[…]

The Texas Department of Transportation has already given their consent for the project to move forward, and the LSRD has formally “kicked off the federal environmental process” according to an email sent in September of 2014 from a staff member of LSRD, Allison Schulze, to Alamo area officials and advocates of the project.

The LSRD intends to transform an existing Union Pacific rail line into the commuter line. Thus, in adhering to the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA), the federal government will evaluate and improve the safety of the rail for transporting people.

LSRD, in an report with KVUE news, states if kept on schedule the project from now until finish will take about 5 years.

The last update I had on this was back in January of 2012. More recently, as that KVUE story from this January notes, the LSRD held a series of public information meetings, which is part of the environmental review process. Last December, the Austin City Council voted to support the funding to maintain and operate a regional passenger rail line, which is obviously a big step. That story indicates that this approval is contingent on a “legislative decision to tweak a state law” as well as an agreement from Union Pacific to share its tracks. No clue what the “legislative decision” is about – I presume it’s a bill that needs to be passed to allow for funds to be spent on a project like this. One hopes it will meet less resistance than the Texas Central Railway has met.

I should note that a travel time of 75 minutes is about what it took to drive from Austin to San Antonio 25 years ago, when much of that stretch of I-35 was farmland. I doubt one can drive it that quickly any time during the day now. Note that there would be multiple stops along the way, so we’re not talking express service. I presume this also means that several other city councils, in places like Schertz and New Braunfels and San Marcos and Buda, will have to take similar votes to approve funding for maintenance and operations. A five year timeline seems awfully optimistic given all the things that could go wrong, but I’m rooting for them to succeed.

Another Lone Star Rail update

From the Statesman:

Commuter rail between San Antonio and Georgetown, at least as a legislatively sanctioned policy goal, will have its 15th birthday this spring. The tiny government agency created later to make it a reality is almost 9 years old.

The LSTAR rail line, despite millions of dollars spent already on various studies, remains mostly an aspiration. But officials with the Lone Star Rail District quietly have made progress over the past 15 months, reaching a preliminary agreement with Union Pacific that paves the way for the freight operator to cede its existing urban railroad to the passenger rail. They also narrowed to three the possible paths for an alternate freight line east of Austin.

The district has begun a $10 million federally required environmental study on the passenger line and just received a promise of $10 million from the Capital Area Metropolitan Planning Organization for a similar study on the potential new Union Pacific freight line. Over the years, the district has received or been promised almost $60 million, mostly in federal and state grants, for various studies.

Where to find the money to build and operate the line, as always, remains the great unknown, with projected initial investment for the passenger and freight lines at $1.5 billion or more and annual operating costs in the tens of millions.

But district staff members, turning to a financing model for Central Texas toll roads over the past decade, now say they will look to the private sector to design, build, finance, operate and maintain the 115-mile, 16-station line from Georgetown, through downtown Austin, to San Antonio’s south side.

[…]

[Joe Black, Lone Star rail director and operations manager] and Alison Schulze, a district senior planner, gave some details of how the line might operate, based on studies and other research.

Initial fares likely would be about 18 cents a mile, Black said, or about $20 for a trip the length of the line. But he said that, just as with most transit agencies, there would be discounted fares for month passes.

A trip between downtown Austin to downtown San Antonio likely would take about 90 minutes — not high speed but considerably faster than Amtrak. Ridership in the beginning, the district estimates, would be 12,000 to 20,000 boardings a day, most of those would be much shorter jaunts to and from downtown Austin and San Antonio to the cities’ suburbs.

See here, here, and here for some background. The travel time makes it comparable to the Austin-Houston rail line, with the main difference from my perspective being that the Austin to San Antonio corridor makes more sense from a commuter perspective. Look at the proposed map – having places like New Braunfels and San Marcos in between, not to mention Georgetown and Pflugerville to the north, just about guarantees ridership through the day, as long as there’s some way to get where you’re going at the endpoints. By contrast, I don’t see that much demand to get to and from Hempstead or Brenham or Giddings for the Austin/Houston line. The price is attractive as well; there was no mention of that in the Austin/Houston study, but if it’s the same rate then the total would be about the same, since the line that doesn’t detour through College Station has 109 miles of track. Best guesstimate at this point for how long it will take to get up and running is five to seven years. Check back in 2017 or so and see where things stand then.

More on the Lone Star Rail District

The following comment was left on my earlier post about the Lone Star Rail District and its efforts to build a rail line between Austin and San Antonio, and I thought it was worth highlighting:

LSTAR is actually much further along than it was in 2009. In fact, the subject of the article was an update by LSTAR staff to City Council, which directed city staff at the conclusion of the presentation to work with LSTAR staff and consultants to identify ways to fund the operation and maintenance of the future system, with the goal of an agreement by the end of the year. Similar discussions will be taking place in Austin soon, and in each of the cities and towns up and down the proposed line.

LSTAR recently signed an MOU with the Union Pacific Railroad to study the relocation of UP’s “through” freight trains to a new alignment. This had been a major stumbling block in the past, as the volume of freight trains on the tracks that LSTAR proposes to use for the passenger service is too large to simultaneously support freight and passenger operation.

Right now, the passenger line is in the midst of its environmental studies (required by federal regulations), and the freight bypass line is just starting up the alternatives analysis (to identify the least impactful route between Seguin and Taylor). Although the District is not completely in control of the schedule (there are federal processes that could be short or long duration), it has targeted approximately 2 to 3 years for the finalization of the environmental process on both the passenger and freight lines. Final design and construction on both would come soon after.

Funding and financing are, of course, issues. But the purpose of concluding agreements with the District’s member cities and municipalities on local operations and maintenance funding are necessary to leverage federal loans and grants, and to attract private investment.

It was signed by Joe Black from Lone Star Rail. My thanks to him for the clarification.

San Antonio still in for Austin rail line

I wish them the very best of luck with this.

San Antonio officials will continue to pursue a passenger rail line that one day could connect the Alamo City to Austin, a transit project that’s already been in the works for more than a decade.

The city’s endorsement Wednesday of the Lone Star Rail District initiative came on the heels of the Obama administration’s announcement that it will support a $53 billion high-speed rail initiative over the next five years, the most money committed to rail in over a generation, emphasized Tullos Wells, vice chairman of the district board, an entity that includes cities, counties and transit authorities along the 120-mile corridor.

“This is a time to make this project sail,” Wells said.

But it likely will be several years of planning and negotiations — including relocating an existing Union Pacific Railroad freight line at a cost of $1.7 billion — before anyone will be able to ride on the proposed rail line, called LSTAR.

And as we know, the state of Texas is not exactly in a strong position when it comes to planning and executing this sort of project. I blogged about LSTAR in November of 2009, and it’s not clear to me they’re any closer to running trains now than they were then when they were aiming for 2012 or 2013 as a start date. Still, I really hope they succeed. It makes all kinds of sense for this corridor to have a rail line, I-35 is horribly congested, and this could serve as a cornerstone to a future high speed rail network for Texas.

Lone Star Rail

We’ve talked a number of times in this space about the possibility of building a commuter rail line between Houston and Galveston, possibly connecting to another line that would run out Highway 290 to College Station. That effort is just now starting to gain some momentum, and could see construction begin relatively soon. Another place where that kind of rail would make a lot of sense is between Austin and San Antonio. They have had a government entity in place to make that happen since 1997, which perhaps should serve as a dash of cold water to anyone who might feel overly optimistic about a Houston-Galveston line happening. But as Ben Wear reports, there may be some progress happening there as well.

As of last month, the San Marcos-based government agency hoping someday soon to run passenger trains between Williamson County and San Antonio is now called the Lone Star Rail District. Agency officials have called a news conference for this morning to advertise that fact, and that the train line will be called the LSTAR.

Or perhaps would be called. Because a dozen years after the Legislature authorized it, the train service is still mostly a line on a map. As agency board chairman Sid Covington says, the main obstacles to creating a commuter line between Austin and San Antonio are now and always have been Union Pacific freights and money.

It’s a matter of too much of the first and not enough of the latter.

[…]

All is not smoke, however. The district, after existing on $7.7 million in congressional earmarks for several years, now has a commitment for $40 million over the next four years from the Capital Area Metropolitan Planning Organization and its San Antonio counterpart. That money will be used for design and a study required for federal environmental clearance of the project. That study should begin early next year.

More from the Express News:

“Passenger rail is coming to San Antonio, Austin and the I-35 corridor,” said Tullos Wells, vice chairman of the district’s board of directors. “We’re going to make it happen.”

[…]

District officials estimate it would cost about $800 million to build a fully functional passenger system.

But the regional rail service can only be realized if Union Pacific relocates its freight trains to a proposed bypass line that would remove through-freight trains from urban centers. Officials estimate the cost of a bypass from the South Side of San Antonio to Taylor would be about $1.7 billion.

“The rail relocation is the key to it. If you don’t move the freight out, forget really having a good first-class passenger service,” Bexar County Judge Nelson Wolff said.

Wells said he hopes the LSTAR could begin offering “preliminary service” as early as 2012 or 2013.

“Yes, it’s ambitious,” he said. “But it’s doable.”

It’s something, at least. This kind of line makes all kinds of sense – I-35 between Austin and San Antonio is woefully crowded, having New Braunfels and San Marcos in between would be a big boost to ridership, the corridor is growing rapidly – so perhaps this is a sign that something will finally happen. You can see a map with potential station locations at that link. The On the Move blog and the Austin Post have more.