Board looking into San Antonio-Austin commuter rail could face same fate as failed predecessor

Officials may have a hard time convincing Union Pacific to give up its existing rail line for commuter service.

click to enlarge An artist's rendering shows a commuter rail stop in Austin. - Courtesy Photo / Lone Star Rail District copy
Courtesy Photo / Lone Star Rail District copy
An artist's rendering shows a commuter rail stop in Austin.
Editor's note: This story has been updated to clarify what's shown in the artist's rendering above and to be more specific about RESTART Lone Star Rail District founder Clay Anderson's background. The piece also has been updated to clarify details in the 2008 Central Texas Rail Relocation Study on double tracking along existing rail lines.

From city council members and county judges to members of Congress, it seems like San Antonio and Austin leaders are hopping onto the idea of reliable commuter rail service between the two cities.

In recent months, those leaders have launched the Central Texas Passenger Rail Advisory Board Committee, and the founder of private high-speed rail company Brightline has expressed interest in expanding into the Lone Star State. Local leaders also have sent letters to U.S. Secretary of Transportation Pete Buttigieg urging him to back rail service connecting the emerging San Antonio-Austin megaregion, which will be home to 8.5 million people by 2050.

“I just brought it up to Pete Buttigieg at our congressional 5K the other day,” said U.S. Rep. Greg Casar, a Democrat whose district includes parts of both San Antonio and Austin.

While few would argue the idea of regional rail is picking up steam, we’ve been down this track before.

The Lone Star Rail District, an entity similar to the recently minted Central Texas Passenger Rail Advisory Committee, also got plenty of fanfare when it launched. However, the effort fizzled in 2016 because Union Pacific didn’t want to give up its rights to the existing rail line between the two cities for commuter service.

That same issue may bog down the current attempt to connect Austin and San Antonio, experts caution. And it’s not the only potential barrier to surmount.

Unless the Texas Department of Transportation (TxDOT) and the federal government are willing to cough up billions to add new freight rail, this iteration of the Lone Star Rail District also could face the same slow-motion derailment, according to observers.

The possibilities

Although details of a commuter rail line between San Antonio and Austin remain sketchy, San Antonio mayoral candidate Beto Altamirano, a former public involvement specialist at the Alamo Area Metropolitan Planning Organization, told the Current he envisions three possible scenarios.

The first and most affordable is building a bus rapid transit line that would connect the two cities via dedicated lanes on I-35.

The second possibility is building a new rail connecting Austin and San Antonio. That idea was also thrown into the public discussion weeks ago by Brightline founder Wes Eden, whose company has already successfully built a high-speed rail connecting the Florida metros of Miami, Fort Lauderdale, West Palm Beach and Orlando.

“When we look at the places that are likely to be next, it’s city pairs that have got the same characteristics that we see here, which are two big population centers separated by two or three hundred miles, lots of travel between them and lots of traffic between them,” Eden told Bloomberg News. “Atlanta to Charlotte, Dallas to Houston, Houston to San Antonio, San Antonio to Dallas — that whole triangle in Texas is one.”

However, a 2008 study published by the Lone Star Rail District determined that environmental considerations, land rights issues and existing infrastructure made a third option more realistic than the second: that interested parties could lease Union Pacific’s existing freight track connecting Austin and San Antonio.

Congressman Casar said that idea remains the most financially feasible.

“The most cost-efficient would be for us to use that right of way that we already have, because so much of this isn’t just the cost of putting track down,” Casar told the Current. “It’s the cost of the land, eminent domain. That’s the hard part.”

Freight bypass

However, Union Pacific balked at that notion once before. The Lone Star Rail District died because the company didn’t want to share its highly profitable freight line with a commuter service beyond Amtrak service, which travels between San Antonio and Austin once daily. That’s hardly a feasible mode of transportation for everyday commuters.

Clay Anderson — founder of the grassroots RESTART Lone Star Rail District movement and a member of the Central Texas Passenger Rail Advisory Board Committee — said there’s now a way to bring Union Pacific on board.

“Along the existing corridor, I’m envisioning adding track in strategic locations to go from a single track to a double track, or double track to a ... triple track to allow passenger rail to go around freight trains,” said Anderson, an Austin-based, Columbia-educated transportation planner.

Still, an earlier analysis suggests the density of development between San Antonio and Austin makes double tracking tricky. Much of the existing rail line owned by Union Pacific isn’t suitable for double tracking due to existing infrastructure, including freeway overpasses and residential housing, according to the 2008 Central Texas Rail Relocation Study.

At that time, Union Pacific officials said they would only lease out existing track for commuter rail service if a freight bypass could be built connecting Taylor to Seguin and circumnavigating San Antonio, people familiar with the matter said. That bypass would have allowed Union to move freight faster.

The Union Pacific’s existing line between San Antonio and Austin snakes through the center of towns such as San Marcos and New Braunfels. It passes 50 railroad crossings, which can force locomotives to drop their speeds to as low as 20 miles per hour.

Sounding the death knell for the Lone Star Rail District, the proposed freight bypass Union Pacific favored would have cost $2.4 billion, or $3.57 billion in today’s money.

Political attitudes towards spending money on rail aren’t much different in 2024, observers note.

Just one more lane

Earlier this year, U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas and Missouri Congressman Sam Graves, both Republicans, sent a letter to Buttigieg raising concerns about California’s high-speed rail project connecting Los Angeles and San Francisco.

That floundering project so far has cost taxpayers $128 billion, including an additional $3 billion in funding from Biden’s Build Back Better plan. Not a single segment of that project is open, and there’s still no completion date.

“Despite evidence that continues to show that the California High-Speed Rail project has critical issues indicating there is no reasonable path forward for successful completion of the project … the Biden administration continues to allocate substantial federal taxpayer dollars to this highly questionable endeavor,” Cruz and Graves wrote.

Although the jury is still out whether Austin and San Antonio residents will ride commuter rail service between the two cities, Altamirano, Casar and Anderson agree that adding another lane to I-35 alone won’t fix the growing region’s ever-worsening traffic congestion.

“We can end up pouring tons more money into I-35, but it’s not going to make traffic any better or make that trip any faster,” Casar said.

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Michael Karlis

Michael Karlis is a Staff Writer at the San Antonio Current. He is a graduate of American University in Washington, D.C., whose work has been featured in Salon, Alternet, Creative Loafing Tampa Bay, Orlando Weekly, NewsBreak, 420 Magazine and Mexico Travel Today. He reports primarily on breaking news, politics...

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