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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.

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4 Comments

  1. Joel says:

    the commute is still 75 minutes, it just isn’t as pleasant. i did austin to san antonio for work for the past four years. traffic got worse over that time (especially IN the two cities), but i could still get from south austin to north san antonio in an hour.

    so color me unimpressed by a train that would take the same amount of time (plus ticketing, boarding …).

    i am a full-blown supporter of trains, which makes it even more frustrating to watch a steady parade of crappy train proposals. even my leftist friends voted against the last rail bond in austin, it was so underbaked.

  2. M1EK says:

    Don’t buy any of this. Lone Star Rail has been five years away for twenty years now (although their director will argue it based on various semantic objections, we’ve been talking about passenger service on this line for a long time, and the obstacles remain just as big as they’ve been all along).

  3. JB says:

    I’m “their director” referenced in the email from Mike Dahmus. I’m only starting my 5th year here myself, so I wasn’t here for the first 15 years that he mentions, but…OK.

    While “we’ve” been talking about passenger service on this line for a long time, there was never an agency with the mandate and geographic coverage to actually *do* it. Mike and I have discussed this already – there is a lot of talk, all the time, about needed projects, but until someone actually does something about it, projects of this size just remain good ideas.

    I’m not sure where that 5 year number comes from, because I haven’t been using it lately. There were legitimate reasons that that initial estimate has dragged on, and much of it has to do with dealings with our federal and state partners, which has not always been easy. If you were to ask me (and a lot of people do), I’d say that given our 3-year EIS schedule, if all went perfect we could have *something* up and running in 6 years. Because a project of this magnitude won’t go perfect (I guess if it were easy it’d already have been done!), I say 10 years maximum.

    So, a 6- to 10-year time horizon, with the more realistic estimate being on the 10-year side.

    The obstacles that Mike mentions (and he doesn’t get specific, so I’m guessing here at what he’s referring to) are real. They are also not insurmountable, given that there’s an organization formed specifically for the purpose of getting the project done. I’ve never claimed that it would be easy, and I’ve never taken anything as a sure bet. But we are well on our way by the end of this year to having secured the majority of the local funding deals we need, and we’ll have a Record of Decision from the environmental process in the 2017-2018 time frame. A new legal agreement with UP is in the works (we already have one in place), and we have serious interest from several potential private partners, who have flown here (some from across an ocean or two) to talk to us about how we can jointly get this thing done.

    I admit to being a bit biased, of course. But given what I know about the project, including some information that only the project staff has at this point, I’m bullish. We’re going to do this.

  4. M1EK says:

    More specifically, credible passenger service (i.e. passenger service that is remotely frequent and sufficiently reliable) will not be feasible until UP moves a bunch of freight, and UP has no obvious incentive to do so. Like with I-35 truck traffic, peoples’ idea about how much freight traffic truly is through versus local is sometimes not accurate. Unlike the I-35/SH130 issue, somebody still has to come up with a huge amount of money to build the new freight route which doesn’t currently exist.

    You can weasel out by saying ‘some passenger service can be run in the meantime’. But heck, Amtrak already runs there (incredibly unreliable, not very frequent). We all know that kind of extremely low-reliability low-frequency service is not what most people are thinking about when they are promised commuter service on this corridor.

    Jeb Boyt is going to owe me a steak dinner soon as he was one of the people about five years ago who assured people passenger trains would be running within five years; but he’s the only one who was willing to make a bet on it.