A Union Pacific train passes underneath the Hays Street Bridge. Photo by Scott Ball.
A Union Pacific train passes underneath the Hays Street Bridge east of downtown. Credit: Scott Ball / San Antonio Report

The decision by Union Pacific to end its working relationship with Lone Star Rail District (LSRD) in February, was a blow in efforts to develop a passenger rail line between San Antonio and Austin.

But in a special meeting Friday in San Marcos, district directors reaffirmed their commitment to find a  solution to growing traffic congestion along the Interstate 35 corridor.

The district’s board of directors voted 12-1, and asked the organization to continue its current Environmental Impact Study process, and ensure that the process includes all alternative options.

Union Pacific informed the LSRD board on Feb.9 that it would terminate Memorandum of Understanding between the two organizations. Lone Star Rail had tried to determine how it could use existing freight lines for passenger rail, and shift freight traffic to a new rail between Georgetown and San Antonio.

UP officials then said the district had not adequately addressed questions about how a passenger rail system would impact the company’s freight system.

LSRD board members, in a special meeting, went over the progress of the district’s environmental impact process and current list of options. The district did pause work on the alternative involving UP, and moved onto focusing on exploring other options.

Many board members said Union Pacific’s choice to stop working with Lone Star Rail was disappointing, but that they hoped the company would return. The completion of the impact study is crucial to the project, because it would enable future funding, including federal money. The district expects to finish the environmental impact process by 2018.

John Rinard, senior programs director at Parsons Corp., an international construction and engineering organization, told the board that Union Pacific has a history of taking part in large-scale transit projects elsewhere in the country only to step back or withdraw altogether. In some cases, UP would return to a project.

“What you’re experiencing is not unique in the business world,” Rinard said, adding that rail companies such as UP are often concerned about project factors such as liabilities.

District officials have lauded the option of turning a UP freight line into a passenger line as a solid project that benefits all stakeholders, including cities along the I-35 corridor that would like to see a reduction in freight traffic at busy intersections.

Lone Star has envisioned a passenger rail system with 19 stops along the corridor. The district has been looking at potential routes for an different freight line east of I-35. Supporters of the project see it as a way to improve safety for motorists along the corridor, and decreasing vehicular congestion, seen as a negative to continued economic development.

“This looks like an upside for us and our communities,” board member Brigid Shea, a Travis County commissioner, said of the project. She added she has difficulty understanding UP’s decision to end its MOU with Lone Star.

“Sometimes it’s cyclical, and even I still can’t understand why they walked away from previous deals,” Rinard replied.

Rinard suggested that the Lone Star board, which includes several elected city and county leaders from all along the I-35 corridor, assert its political will and press forward with its goal of passenger rail.

“I wouldn’t say stop,” he said. “I cannot see them walking away from the project permanently. It’s a fantastic project. It has all the good points.”

Other alternatives being evaluated by LSRD include using the State Highway 130 corridor, the abandoned MoKan rail alignment, and new right-of-way parallel to the Union Pacific mainline, as well as hybrids of these options.

Board members said they understand the process to arrive at solutions for I-35 is long and complicated, but necessary.

“We need to consider the region as a whole,” said Diane Rath, a board member and executive director of the Alamo Area Council of Governments. “In 20 years we’ll be a region of 7 million people. Using the same infrastructure is going to be untenable.”

“Mobility both of freight and people is of vast importance,” added board member Richard Gambitta, retired director of the UTSA Institute for Law and Public Affairs.

John Thomaides, a board member and San Marcos City Council member, said allowing growth of the rate of freight traffic that goes through his city would negatively impact the neighborhoods and businesses close to that freight line.

“We have 23 at-grade railroad crossings. We can’t afford to have them blocked by 40 to 80 (train) cars per day,” he added.

Will Conley, a Hays County commissioner and board member, cast the lone dissenting vote on Friday. He felt the board’s decision indicates to the public and stakeholders that there has not been enough detailed dialogue about the other options the district is exploring.

“I appreciate your opinion. I don’t agree with it. To say we have not taken input is absolutely incorrect,” replied board Chairman Sid Covington, who represents Austin’s business community.

Following the meeting, Joe Black, deputy executive director for LSRD, said in a news release that his organization remains committed to a “mission to provide reliable, predictable and safe regional transportation.”

“Over the next few months, we will continue to engage with our stakeholders and work cooperatively with our transportation partners to keep moving the project forward,” he added.

Top Image: A Union Pacific train passes underneath the Hays Street Bridge.  Photo by Scott Ball. 

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Edmond Ortiz, a lifelong San Antonian, is a freelance reporter/editor who has worked with the San Antonio Express-News and Prime Time Newspapers.