Friday, August 01, 2008

“Inclusion of this corridor as part of the TTC project would limit both operation and commercial flexibility.”

Many trains could bypass S.A. and Austin — for $3.8 billion


Patrick Driscoll
San Antonio Express-News
Copyright 2008

Trains lumbering through and stopping up San Antonio and Austin can be sped up and rerouted to the countryside for $3.8 billion, say two long-awaited studies just released — but there's no money to do it.

The Texas Department of Transportation's 400-plus pages outline several scenarios that include adding 145 miles of tracks, building service yards and bridges, upgrading old lines and closing streets.

Any option would open existing lines for commuter rail from San Antonio to Austin, and a local bypass to the southeast could move two-thirds of the trains out of the city. Shifting train traffic would help quell fears sparked by past accidents, including a 2004 chlorine spill that killed three people.

But no money for rail relocation is available.

“The biggest obstacle to this is funding,” said TxDOT engineer Jennifer Moczygemba, who oversaw the studies.

One hope is a rail relocation fund approved by state voters in 2005 but left empty by legislators last year. With a statewide rail wish list topping $16 billion, a drive is on to nudge lawmakers into action.

“Let's get active,” Bexar County Judge Nelson Wolff bellowed to 200 people Thursday at a luncheon held at Sunset Station. “Let's get ready for the next session.”

Another idea, advocated by TxDOT, is to use the Trans-Texas Corridor's private-funding umbrella to build the 145-mile bypass around San Antonio and Austin, which is estimated to cost $2.4 billion and give back $1.4 billion in public benefits.

A consortium, led by Cintra of Spain and Zachry Construction Co. of San Antonio, is willing to invest $6 billion to build tracks from Dallas to Mexico and charge tolls to rail users, but it hasn't revealed details.

But Union Pacific, which owns the tracks on the ground now, doesn't like the private-funding solution. The railroad instead wants to assume ownership of any new tracks.

“Inclusion of this corridor as part of the TTC project would limit both operation and commercial flexibility,” UP Vice President John Rebensdorf said in a letter to the agency.

UP also opposes the 68-mile bypass around San Antonio because it would be 14 miles longer than the current route. Trains would burn 1 million more gallons of fuel a year and trucks would gain an edge to compete for customers.

The railroad is at least willing to study the Austin bypass and a shorter San Antonio reroute inside Loop 410.

“If folks want to do this, we're willing to work on it,” UP spokesman Joe Arbona said. “But if they don't, we've got other business to do. We feel very strongly about this.”

The state can't force UP, which is regulated by the federal government, to do anything, the Central Texas Rail Relocation Study concludes.

“UP, as a private industry, owns and operates on its existing facility and may be resistant to relocating to another corridor without adequate compensation,” the last sentence says.

Without the full San Antonio bypass, which would cost $1.4 billion, fewer trains could be moved out of the city core.

“It doesn't do near as much,” TxDOT's Moczygemba said.

Commuter rail could still happen without either of the rail bypasses, but service wouldn't be as good, said Ross Milloy, president of the Austin-San Antonio Corridor Council. Amtrak could deliver a study this year on how to get started without the bypasses.

A rail district has been shooting to ramp up passenger rail on 112 miles from Port San Antonio to Georgetown within four years but hasn't lined up $613 million needed for construction. Its studies say development around 15 stations could boost tax revenues by $2.3 billion over several decades.

The plan calls for trips as fast as 90 minutes on trains leaving every 30 to 45 minutes.

“It will never get cheaper,” Milloy told the Thursday lunch crowd. “We've go to do it now. This is our moment, this is our generation's project.”

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