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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.

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.

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.

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.

Commuter rail update

Christof has some surprisingly good news for those who want to see commuter rail in the Houston area.

There hasn’t been much public movement on commuter rail since the HGAC’s study was released a year ago. But quietly, gears are meshing, and we may have commuter rail to Galveston and Hempstead as early as 2012.

On Thursday, the North Houston Association hosted a high-powered group: Harris County Judge Ed Emmett, METRO CEO Frank Wilson, Gulf Coast Freight Rail District (GCFRD) Chairman Mark Ellis, Texas High Speed Rail and Transportation Corporation (THSRTC) chairman (and former Harris County Judge) Robert Eckels, and Union Pacific’s Joe Adams. Introducing them was former Harris County Judge and State Senator Jon Lindsey, father of the Harris County Toll Road Authority. If there was ever a visual demonstration of the political will that’s aligning behind commuter rail, this was it.

Color me pleasantly surprised. As Christof notes, there are still some big questions to be answered about things like who would implement and run it, how much it would cost and how it would be paid for, and where it would connect to the existing Metro system and the city’s core, but just knowing that all these players are on board and pointing in the same general direction is reason for a lot of hope. From the interviews I’ve done so far, I feel confident that Houston City Council at least would be ready to work on this. Getting it in place would greatly enhance the existing Metro system, and would give momentum for the case to expand further. Keep yout fingers crossed.