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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.

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