Monday, October 23, 2006

"This is the fruit of the poisonous tree that we're dealing with here today. And that poisonous tree is the Trans-Texas Corridor."

Corridor touted as train solution


Patrick Driscoll
San Antonio Express-News
Copyright 2006

San Antonio can get new railroad tracks built around the city, but they'd likely be part of the controversial Trans-Texas Corridor, state officials said Monday.

"I know of no mechanism to relocate rail in rural areas other than the Trans-Texas Corridor," said David Casteel, who heads the Texas Department of Transportation's local office.

Casteel and other officials asked the Metropolitan Planning Organization board to authorize a $5 million federal study to select a route for the new tracks, which could take three years. TxDOT would put up a 20 percent local match.

"We are listening to what the public is saying," TxDOT engineer Jessica Castiglione told the board, referring to last week's Union Pacific train derailment in Beacon Hill that again raised alarms about trains going through the city.

No one was hurt, but memories were reignited over the way a June 2004 collision, though in a sparsely populated area, released a cloud of chlorine that killed four people and hospitalized at least 30.

About 80 UP trains pass through San Antonio each day. The company says 50 of those trains could be rerouted if new tracks and rail yards were built.

Metropolitan Planning Organization board members, who represent local governments and various agencies and oversee federal transportation dollars, agreed to consider the study for new tracks when they meet in December.

However, some board members wanted assurances that they wouldn't be endorsing the Trans-Texas Corridor, a proposed 4,000-mile network of toll lanes, railways and utility lines financed by private developers that would criss-cross the state to deal with growing traffic.

Critics say companies would profit from tolls, gas stations and restaurants while communities would see their tax bases shrink and economic opportunities diminish.

Also, farmers and ranchers would be forced to give up land for the 1,200-foot-wide corridor, and some farm-to-market highways won't connect while other roads won't even cross it.

City Councilman Richard Perez, who is chairman of the organization's board, said moving forward with the rail route study doesn't constitute an endorsement of plans for the corridors.

"That is an affirmative," he said.

The board approved a resolution asking the Legislature to put $200 million a year into a statewide rail relocation fund, which could bond $2 billion worth of projects to start.

County Commissioner Tommy Adkisson, a member of the board, persuaded the panel to amend the resolution to say that it does not endorse the corridor project, and that the Federal Railroad Administration should step up oversight of rail safety.

"I'm just telling you this is the fruit of the poisonous tree that we're dealing with here today," Adkisson said. "And that poisonous tree is, in my judgment, the Trans-Texas Corridor."

The two TxDOT officials on the board, Casteel and engineer Clay Smith, voted against the amendment.

"It's short-sighted to think that we can relocate rail without the Trans-Texas Corridor," Casteel said.

There are nine rail studies under way around the state, and TxDOT officials estimate that relocating trains to rural areas, separating some of the rail and road crossings in cities and making improvements to ease rail traffic congestion would cost more than $16 billion.

© 2006 San Antonio Express-News: