Connecting San Antonio and Austin by Train

We're really victims of our own lack of vision," says Ross Milloy, talking about the rapid and relatively unmanaged growth that Austin has experienced over the last 20 years. Milloy, president of the Austin-San Antonio Corridor Council, is also making a detailed case for why a proposed commuter rail service linking the two south central Texas cities is an important part of the solution to the problems brought by growth.

Milloy's comment is a little ironic, too, considering that the Four Seasons restaurant in which he is sitting this early morning includes more than a few breakfast meetings between starched-shirted and power-suited businesspeople. One doesn't have to be a mind reader to know that more than a few business deals are in the works, and at least one or two of those deals may bring new jobs to Austin -- and more cars, expansive subdivisions, strip malls, and asphalt ribbons of highway stretching deeper and deeper into the hills. It is, to some who remember a more innocent Austin, part of a nightmare right out of Austin filmmaker Richard Linklater's SubUrbia: endless, smothering development. For Milloy, this kind of almost unchecked growth is evidence of a lack of vision on the part of both the government and the private sector.

Milloy remembers a capital city of a little over 200,000 people when he came to Austin more than 25 years ago to attend college. The Austin metropolitan area now clocks in at more than a million residents, but don't misunderstand: Milloy is not an opponent of growth and development. After all, he says, a growing Austin has brought well-paying jobs for many, good restaurants, a wealth of entertainment alternatives and other accoutrements of a vibrant, cosmopolitan city. But with the growth of San Antonio and smaller cities to the south, Milloy sees the danger that Austin will soon be part of a teeming metropolitan morass much more like Dallas-Fort Worth than the little bit of heaven longtime River City residents remember. "We need to get ahead of this early," he says, nodding in the direction of the North Texas Metroplex. "We need to get the infrastructure in place to avoid the problems they've got."

The corridor council Milloy heads is a public/private partnership based in San Marcos. It specializes in regional planning, with an emphasis on long-range infrastructure and economic development in the growing region some have begun to refer to as "Austintonio" or -- god help us -- the "Hill-plex." For over two years, the council has been working with state lawmakers, local officials, and private business to develop a commuter rail service that would connect the major cities and towns of the Austin-San Antonio area. Such a service would provide a variety of benefits, Milloy says, such as a way for commuters in San Marcos, for example, to get to work in Austin without getting in their cars and adding to the heavy traffic on increasingly congested I-35.

Milloy envisions the commuter rail service between Georgetown and San Antonio -- which would run mostly on the existing Union Pacific tracks that parallel I-35 -- as part of a larger transportation network that would include the proposed State Highway 130 between Georgetown and Seguin east of Austin. SH130 would act as a "reliever route," diverting traffic around Austin, and away from the increasingly congested I-35 that cuts through the heart of the city. The network also would include a railroad bypass along the SH130 right of way, allowing Union Pacific freight to avoid the current tracks, which are designated for the future commuter rail line.

Easing work commutes would be only one of the advantages of the projects, especially the commuter rail proposal, Milloy says. The completion of the projects, he says, would pull development east, away from the Edwards Aquifer near Austin, as well as alleviating pollution created by a congested I-35. In addition, Milloy points out that Austin businesses would have access to an additional 1.6 million consumers from San Antonio and other corridor cities. Milloy also sees the commuter rail line connecting with existing and planned city transit systems, such as light rail in Austin and San Antonio. Travelers could then more easily get to regional airports in both cities and could visit parks, commercial centers, restaurants, museums, music venues, and other features that would sprout up around interchange hubs in the transit network and make them actual destination points. "If you've got a destination, not just a transit hub, you just go to be there," Milloy says. "You make it a destination in itself. Eventually you move toward a society where, if you don't want a car, you don't have to have a car."

Pie in the sky? Well, proponents of the projects make a strong case for proceeding. Milloy and other supporters, for example, traveled last month to Washington to testify before the House Subcommittee on Surface Transportation. Congress is considering reauthorization of the Intermodal Surface Transportation Efficiency Act, which would provide federal money for transportation projects. At the hearing, proponents, including U.S. Rep. Lloyd Doggett, pointed out that I-35 has become increasingly unsafe as traffic has increased along its route. In fact, they said, nearly 100 people have been killed in accidents over the last 36 months on the stretch of I-35 between Austin and San Antonio.

Milloy and other corridor advocates also point out that vehicular traffic has increased 754% since I-35 was built in the 1960s. Traffic has doubled in just the last 48 months, especially after the passage of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) in 1993 made I-35 a major conduit of trade between Mexico, the United States, and Canada. Within 36 months, proponents say, it will take longer for a truck to drive from San Antonio to Dallas than it did before the interstate was built 30 years ago. In short, says project supporter Gonzalo Barrientos, the Democratic state senator from Austin, I-35 has become too dangerous for drivers and too costly for business: "The congestion on I-35 has grown beyond being an annoying inconvenience. It is an economic burden for people who travel within or through [Austin and San Antonio]."

In an era in which fiscal conservatives and limited-government proponents hold a great deal of power in both the federal and Texas governments, however, money for the projects may be difficult to obtain. The Texas Dept. of Transportation is on the verge of completing a feasibility study that would provide a cost estimate for the projects, but Milloy says some observers have estimated that completing all three projects -- commuter rail service, SH130, and the rail bypass -- could cost about $1.2 billion dollars over five to seven years. The commuter rail service alone might cost $100-150 million. The money would come from federal, state, and local funds, as well as from private sources.

To get the needed funding, the projects' supporters have attracted an interesting constellation of political figures and officials. For example, Democratic state Sen. Barrientos and Republican state Sen. Jeff Wentworth from San Antonio are co-sponsoring a bill in the Texas Legislature that would allow the creation of an Inter-Municipal Commuter Rail District between Georgetown and San Antonio. Cities and counties along the commuter rail route could opt to join the district, and its governing board would be comprised largely of representatives from local jurisdictions: Austin, Georgetown, Round Rock, San Marcos, New Braunfels, and San Antonio, plus Travis, Williamson, Hays, Comal, Guadalupe, and Bexar counties. Three other board members would represent the state and smaller towns in the district. The district would not have the power to tax, but it could issue revenue bonds and would have the power of eminent domain.

Perhaps more interesting is the diversity of congressional supporters of the projects: Doggett of Austin and Henry B. Gonzalez of San Antonio, both liberal House Democrats, and Lamar Smith, a conservative Republican congressman from San Antonio, all are important backers. And Milloy says he hopes to get the support of U.S. Rep. Ron Paul, a Gulf Coast Republican whose congressional district includes part of the proposed commuter rail district. Good luck. Paul has been so fanatical in his opposition to government spending that he ran for president in 1988 as the Libertarian Party nominee. And when he first served in the U.S. House during the Carter and Reagan administrations, he alienated many of his constituents in Brazoria County (south of Houston) by refusing to support federal funding to enlarge the port of Freeport.

State senator Gonzalo Barrientos calls I-35 an "economic burden."

photograph by Jana Birchum

Getting the $20-40 million in federal funding that supporters say is needed just for the commuter rail project may be tough, and funding for the other projects also is far from a sure thing. But Barrientos says that the commuter rail project can move ahead even if the proposals for SH130 and the railroad bypass don't, and Union Pacific officials have backed this up by saying that the existing track could accommodate both freight and commuter rail service. Milloy, however, sees the approval for all three projects as essential for the commuter rail proposal. A failure to get approval for SH130 and the rail bypass wouldn't kill the commuter rail proposal, he says, but "It would badly wound it."

A setback occurred just last Monday when Capital Metro's board of directors approved the allocation of $500,000 to study the Austin/San Antonio commuter rail and SH130. Milloy's group had asked for at least $905,000, and to make up for the $405,000 shortfall, Milloy says he plans to ask the Austin City Council for help, as well as San Antonio's.

Despite the obstacles, Milloy remains optimistic -- even when confronted with the old line that car-happy Texans might simply refuse to give up their autos for commuter trains. In fact, Milloy bristles at that argument. "It implies that Texans are stupider than anyone else," he says. "If it's faster, if it's cheaper, and if it's more fun than spending hours stuck in your car in traffic and avoiding 120,000-pound trucks, I think people will use it."

That's a vision, of course, that a lot of commuter rail supporters would like to see.

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