What's My Line?

Tracking the Freight Rail vs.Commuter Rail Debate

photograph by Shadrock Roberts

These days, people spend more time talking about the information highway than about old-fashioned locomotives and railroads. And while the average Austinite may not give much thought to railroads, Union Pacific -- America's largest rail company -- looms large on Austin's transportation horizon. Without the cooperation of UP, or in the alternative, a move by the state, local governments and/or the Surface Transportation Board to force UP to give up its tracks between Austin and San Antonio, passenger rail service between here and the Alamo City will never become a reality. And without that passenger rail service, the congestion on I-35 could become so onerous that it may become more feasible to fly between the two cities than to drive.

Those considerations have led the Austin City Council to take the lead in addressing the Union Pacific situation. On March 25, the council voted in favor of creating a commuter rail district for the Austin-San Antonio corridor. The vote was made under a piece of enabling legislation passed during the last session of the Texas Legislature. The bill, authored by Austin Sen. Gonzalo Barrientos, a Democrat, and San Antonio Sen. Jeff Wentworth, a Republican, allowed the creation of an "intermunicipal commuter rail district," but did not spell out how the district would fund the commuter rail system. The rationale behind that move, says Barrientos aide Richard Hamner, was to allow the district the maximum amount of flexibility in deciding how to pay for it.

The same day the City Council approved the creation of the district, it also passed a resolution directing the city manager to work with the Texas Department of Transportation (TxDOT), the Greater Austin-San Antonio Corridor Council, and other entities "to relocate Union Pacific operations to the vicinity of State Highway 130 or other appropriate corridor" -- presumably so that the Corridor Council could take over UP's existing rail lines. Those actions were followed by a vote earlier this month by the Capitol Metro board, which approved spending $50,000 on a feasibility study to look at commuter rail between Austin and San Antonio.

At this point, all three votes are largely symbolic. The rail district won't become a reality until three more entities -- the City of San Antonio, Bexar County, and Travis County -- vote to opt into the district. If that happens -- and given Travis County Judge Bill Aleshire's opposition to the rail district, it's not clear that it will -- a board will be created to decide how to finance, operate, and manage a passenger rail system.

Union Pacific Rail Lines in the Austin/San Antonio Region

For commuter rail between Austin and San Antonio to succeed, UP will have to relinquish some of these tracks.
source: Railroad Commission of Texas

The council's vote asking UP to give up its tracks between Austin and San Antonio is also largely figurative at this point because the city has virtually no leverage over Union Pacific. But the timing of the request is important. UP is more vulnerable right now than at any other time in recent history. The railroad's long service delays and the resultant losses being inflicted on the Texas economy (about $100 million per month, according to a study paid for by the Texas Railroad Commission) have made UP a big political target. The railroad has been under continual attack by Railroad Commission Chairman Charles Matthews (see sidebar). Matthews opposed the 1996 merger between UP and Southern Pacific, and now he contends that the merger has given UP a virtual monopoly over the Texas market and that UP is now incapable of providing proper service to its Texas customers. While Matthews spanks UP in the Lone Star State, the railroad is also taking a bipartisan beating in Washington, where a a Senate subcommittee in late March chastised the Surface Transportation Board chair Linda J. Morgan for not taking a more active role in regulating UP.

But while political pressure on UP is mounting, along with growing public sentiment that UP should give up some of its tracks, UP spokesman Mark Davis says his company isn't quite ready to abandon its Austin-to-San Antonio tracks: "When we look at the corridor studies, when we are being moved or relocated, we have to ask, `Is the new route equal to or better than the existing track?'"

Currently, according to Davis, UP is running about two dozen trains a day on the tracks between Austin and San Antonio. "Foremost for us," he said, "we have to have a route that's equal to or better than what currently exists and be able to maintain the existing speed on that new route. In some locations that's just not possible." In addition, Davis points out that his company is planning to spend about $16 million to refurbish a section of track near New Braunfels. If the company is forced to give up its Austin-to-San Antonio tracks, it will expect to be reimbursed for the expenditures it has made to upgrade its facilities. And then there's the traffic factor. UP's Austin-San Antonio line has become one of the main rail corridors for NAFTA traffic, and the railroad contends that its rail lines to Mexico are already at 90% capacity. If UP is forced to move off the Austin-San Antonio line, it may need two tracks to replace the one it is currently using.

Another Pipe Dream?

Elected officials in Austin and San Antonio have had preliminary meetings with UP to discuss moving its operations off the Austin-to-San Antonio line. But there are a series of political battles that will have to be fought before the UP issue gets serious. The next key decision on the commuter rail district is scheduled for next Tuesday, May 26, when the Travis County Commissioners Court will vote on the district. And if Aleshire's attitude is shared by the other commissioners, the whole rail plan may be just another road to nowhere. "This has echoes of the bullet train to me," says Aleshire, referring to the failed plan of a few years ago to bring high speed rail to Texas. "I'm not impressed by this idea one bit. I think the legislation is poorly conceived to create another level of government with no identified source of funding. It seems like pure folly to me."

Aleshire adds that he doesn't "automatically assume there's a viable market" for the commuter rail plan. "We have serious transportation problems. But I don't run into many people in Travis County who say that we need to be able to commute back and forth between San Antonio and Austin." Is there anything that would convince Aleshire to change his mind? The truculent judge pauses, then responds: "The Second Coming."

Richard Tankerson doesn't need divine intervention to convince him of the need for the rail district. At a speech on May 1, Tankerson, the chairman of the board of trustees for San Antonio's Via Metropolitan Transit Authority, said the rail district will "enable us to collectively begin seeking the answers our advancing mobility crisis requires. The commuter rail district," he continued, "will become the forum through which the policy and decision makers from the entire region will be able to speak in equitable voices on the concerns of their communities."

But Tankerson's enthusiasm is not necessarily shared by Bexar County Judge Cyndi Krier, who is taking a wait-and-see approach. "I think it's an idea we should explore," said Krier. But she wants to know how the district will be funded before she plans a vote. "With any project of this magnitude, you have to be careful to balance vision with practicality, and that people want it and will use it." In particular, she wants to know how the commuter rail plan would affect "the parking lot between Austin and San Antonio that we know as I-35."

Krier was unclear as to when the Bexar County Commissioners Court will vote on the rail district, because commissioners are waiting on more information about the district from the corridor council. The San Antonio City Council is also holding off on a vote until it receives more details from the corridor group. But San Antonio Mayor Howard Peak, unlike Krier, has made up his mind about the need for commuter rail. "I'm for it," says Peak. And while Peak wants to see a little more information from the corridor council before he schedules a vote, he says, "We need alternative forms of transportation for the future, both locally and between cities." Peak, like Krier, also wants to know about any financial obligations San Antonio will have if and when the rail district is created. And at present, no one is certain about where the money for the commuter rail plan will come from.

Ross Milloy, president of the corridor council, is hoping for an infusion of federal funds to jump-start the project. Congress is trying to put the finishing touches on a multi-billion dollar highway spending package, which will likely include several hundred million dollars for projects like SH 130. And Milloy hopes that Texas will eventually get some Intermodal Surface Transportation Efficiency Act funds to help pay for the commuter rail plan.

Location, Location

Beyond the dollars-and-cents issues, there are some practical questions to be considered. For instance: If the train gets built, where will it go? The most feasible spot for a commuter rail terminal in Austin is the Seaholm Power Plant site. The reasons are obvious: It is centrally located; it sits right on the rail line, and it has plenty of space for parking automobiles and trains. The Austin Transportation Study has already begun studying the feasibility of converting Seaholm into a train station. Last year, ATS asked the architecture school at the University of Texas to design a plan for the former power plant. But lots of other groups have their eyes on Seaholm, too, and the groups who want to convert the aging power plant into an aquarium or art museum have been far more vocal than commuter rail boosters.

Other questions abound. How far north will the commuter rail system go? The cities of Round Rock and Leander are interested in commuter rail. But how much will they be willing to spend to be included?

And then, how and when will UP give up its tracks? As it is, UP is struggling to provide adequate service to its Texas customers, although the railroad will likely get most of those problems sorted out over the next few years. Sources close to the matter expect that when passenger rail gets going, UP will probably share its tracks between Austin and San Antonio with passenger trains. Then, over a period of months or years, UP will gradually move its freight service out of the Austin-San Antonio corridor.

Will the passenger rail service interfere with the operations of Longhorn Railway (see sidebar) and other freight carriers? If the city launches a commuter rail system or a light rail system, rail freight is going to be affected, but that may not be the biggest problem. Longhorn Railway owner Don Cheatham fears that if Austin isn't careful, the city will lose its railyards. When those railyards are gone, the city will lose its ability to carry freight by rail, a move that Cheatham predicts will drastically increase the cost of living in Austin.

All of these questions -- and many more -- will have to be addressed before passenger rail service gets on track. And the concerns of Aleshire and other political officials will have to be resolved before the rail district can even be formed. But for Milloy, the problems of commuter rail are surmountable, particularly when compared with the congestion and safety problems that are already present on I-35. He points to a study by the Center for Transportation Research, which predicts the state could spend anywhere from $3 billion to $20 billion on upgrading I-35 -- and still not solve the congestion problem. Given those figures, Milloy believes that commuter rail is going to start looking more and more promising as a long-term component of the region's transportation infrastructure. "After all," he reasons, "it's not like I-35 is going to get any better."

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