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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.

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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.

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