Commuter Rail: Stuck in the Station Again
County Commissioners Won't Make the Trains Run on Time
On Nov. 7, Austin voters killed light rail. On Nov. 28, the Travis County Commissioners Court fired a few bullets at commuter rail, though none of them were fatal. Rather than join a commuter rail district authorized by the Legislature in 1997, the commissioners voted to study plans for passenger rail service between Austin and San Antonio. The commissioners also passed a resolution stating their opposition to moving freight rail off of the Union Pacific rail line and onto the SH 130 corridor.
The court's actions could hinder efforts to get federal funding for regional commuter rail. In October, the U.S. Dept. of Transportation designated the route between San Antonio and Dallas a high-speed rail corridor, a move that could provide federal money for the rail project. A bill now pending in Congress sets aside $10 billion for high-speed rail projects, including links between San Antonio and Dallas, Tulsa and Dallas, and Dallas and Little Rock. But it remains unclear just how Austin and Travis County will fit into that plan.
The vote by the commissioners court is remarkably similar to the path they took in 1998, when they decided the commuter rail proposal needed more study. The latest vote was discouraging to a number of regional officials who have been working for years to get a commuter train system in place. "I am somewhat disappointed," said Billy Moore, the former mayor of San Marcos who now serves as the director of regional and economic development for Southwest Texas State University. "We need true regionalism. We need a multimodal transportation system. And to have that, we need everyone along the I-35 corridor to sign on."
Moore and other backers of commuter rail want to move freight trains off Union Pacific's tracks between Austin and San Antonio and onto an additional rail line on the proposed SH 130 corridor, which will be built parallel to I-35. They say that rerouting the trains would provide numerous benefits for the region, which is seeing increased freight rail and truck traffic due to the passage of the North American Free Trade Agreement. Union Pacific runs more than 30 freight trains per day on the tracks that pass through the hearts of San Antonio, New Braunfels, San Marcos, and Austin, Moore said. Unless those trains are moved to another corridor, or another track is built on the existing UP right-of-way, it is unlikely that passenger rail service will ever be possible between Austin and the Alamo City.
Moore believes commuter rail will help San Marcos alleviate some of its traffic and parking problems. About 40% of the students at Southwest Texas commute into the city, and the school has far too few parking spaces. Commuter rail would allow many students and faculty to leave their cars at home. In addition, Moore and other San Marcos residents want UP's freight trains moved out of the central part of the city. Moore said there are 27 at-grade rail crossings within the city limits. And the constant freight traffic causes safety and traffic problems that can only be addressed by relocating the tracks.
"Let's put some money in the corridor before it gets overbuilt," said Moore, who adds that building commuter rail would reduce traffic on I-35 and possibly help the region avoid Environmental Protection Agency designation as a nonattainment area for air quality. "It's a hell of a lot cheaper to build a small commuter rail than it is to go through the nonattainment process for this whole region," he said. Houston, for example, currently confronting an area-wide nonattainment designation, is now expecting to spend billions in private and public funds -- for a clean air project that will not even include any federally funded railroads.
The county commissioners took up the commuter rail issue in response to a legislative mandate that they endorse the Capital Area Metropolitan Planning Organization's 2025 transportation plan, which includes a mix of road and transportation projects. Although the commissioners adopted most of the plan approved by CAMPO, they tweaked a few items. One of those items was commuter rail.
Travis County Commissioner Karen Sonleitner said the cost of commuter rail scared her. "If people thought light rail didn't give much for the money, commuter rail's numbers were even worse," she said. "The costs to rebuild the at-grade crossings in San Marcos are unbelievable. And those would have to be taken care of first." Sonleitner added that she is not in favor of moving freight rail onto the SH 130 corridor because she believes it would adversely affect neighborhoods in the region. The resolution that was passed by the commissioners court said the county "does not support the use of the proposed SH 130 corridor for freight rail." The commissioners opposed the move because a "freight line would add a significant amount of noise impacts to neighborhoods." Proponents of commuter rail say the commissioners' position on freight rail makes little sense -- in particular their argument about protecting neighborhoods, because, as Moore emphasized, so many freight trains are now traveling through the centers of four cities. Moving the line to SH 130, they say, would reduce the number of people exposed to the noise and would also reduce the number of people who could be harmed if a train carrying hazardous materials overturns or burns. "It makes sense to take those freight lines out of the center of town," says CAMPO Executive Director Michael Aulick. In past decades, says Aulick, cities needed to have freight lines running through the center of the city. Today, those lines are being "taken over for light rail and commuter rail." Aulick said the central location of the old rail lines makes them more suitable for carrying people instead of freight.
Sonleitner's concerns about money puzzle Sen. Jeff Wentworth, R-San Antonio, who, along with Sen. Gonzalo Barrientos, D-Austin, sponsored the 1997 legislation allowing the creation of an "intermunicipal commuter rail district" to study and, if desired, create and operate a commuter rail system in the region. Wentworth points out that the bill did not spell out how the district would fund the commuter rail system. "It simply creates an entity that can then apply for federal funds to study the feasibility of having this commuter rail district. I'm a little baffled by their concerns because I don't think they are well-founded," he said. The availability of federal funds should be an incentive for the county to join the rail district, said Wentworth.
County Judge Sam Biscoe supported joining the rail district because it would have allowed all of the governmental players in the region to study the issue more closely and determine potential funding mechanisms. "To do it right, you have to have all the partners at the table," Biscoe said. "And that means joining the rail district. Formal membership is what it really takes."
But Biscoe said his fellow commissioners were afraid that the county was becoming overextended financially on transportation projects. In particular, he believes they are worried about the potential costs as the county buys right-of-way for the SH 130 project. Biscoe estimated that land acquisition costs for the roadway could reach $100 million. But he doesn't think that should have been a roadblock for commuter rail. "I felt we could study the issue as a full and formal partner and reserve decisions about what we will commit financially," he said.
CAMPO has long supported commuter rail. In June, the group endorsed commuter rail again, saying it wanted the commuter rail district to be created. A study done last year by the engineering firm Carter & Burgess determined that commuter rail would cost far less than the light rail plan proposed by Capitol Metro. That study -- funded by the Texas Dept. of Transportation, CAMPO, Capital Metro, San Antonio's public transit system, VIA, and the San Antonio Metropolitan Planning Organization -- estimated the cost of building a commuter rail system at $475 million. That price includes purchasing right-of-way, design, construction, improvements to rail crossings, and the construction of passenger stations. The study estimated ridership at 8,000 per day, a figure that could grow to nearly 11,000 per day by 2020. The study also estimated that a regional sales tax of 0.11 cents in Williamson, Travis, Hays, Comal, and Bexar counties would cover half of the construction costs. The federal government would pay for the other half. Half of the rail system's operating costs would be covered by rider fares, the study said. Fares were projected to be $9 for a trip from Georgetown to San Antonio.
Not everyone in the region agrees with the Travis County Commissioners Court. In 1998, the Austin City Council passed a resolution supporting the creation of the rail district. It also passed a resolution directing the city manager to work with the Texas Dept. of Transportation, 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."
Ross Milloy, the president of the Greater Austin-San Antonio Corridor Council, a nonprofit group that has been pushing for a number of regional transportation, parks, and infrastructure projects, said there are several reasons why regional rail infrastructure needs to be upgraded. The passage of NAFTA, he said, has dramatically increased the volume of rail freight moving on the UP line. "That rail line was laid 100 years ago," Milloy said. "And there are almost 200 at-grade crossings between Round Rock and San Antonio. It's our feeling that using that corridor solely for freight rail is no longer an appropriate or efficient use of that corridor."
If state and regional officials cannot build another freight line in the SH 130 corridor or elsewhere, Milloy favors building a parallel line, which could be used for passenger rail, next to the existing UP line on the same right-of-way. He doesn't agree that all freight lines need to be moved out of the central cities, because he believes such a move would drive up prices for many goods and increase the number of trucks on local highways. Implementing passenger rail would "give business travelers something they need between the two communities, which is reliability. Right now, people can't predict how long it will take them to get between the two cities because they don't know if there will be a wreck or a truck that's turned over on I-35." Milloy also points out that Amtrak has proposed passenger service between San Antonio and Monterrey, Mexico. If that service becomes a reality (Amtrak officials say it may be two or three years before it starts) and commuter rail gains the support it needs, Austinites could travel all the way to Monterrey without having to take a car or bus.
There appears to be support in the Legislature for commuter rail. Wentworth and Barrientos both still support the concept. But the defeat of light rail referenda in Austin and San Antonio may be contributing to skittishness about commuter rail between the two cities, since clearly commuter rail would be more viable if it interconnected with other transportation systems, such as light rail. There will be an effort by commuter rail supporters in the upcoming session of the Legislature to modify the 1997 bill and remove the requirement that counties be part of the rail district. "Since counties can't bring any money to the table, maybe they don't have a role in this," said one legislative source who asked not to be named.
Regardless of what the Legislature or Travis County does, CAMPO will continue to promote the commuter rail concept. "We essentially said that Travis County is just going to have a different policy" on commuter rail, Aulick said after a CAMPO meeting that followed the commissioners' vote. While the commissioners' decision to study the issue won't get the trains rolling, Aulick believes the continued growth between Austin and San Antonio will force something to happen. "It's inevitable in my view that we will get commuter rail," he said.
For a map of the proposed commuter rail lines between Austin and San Antonio, see p.30.