Rendering of a Lone Star Rail (LSTAR) stop in Austin. Courtesy of LSRD.
Rendering of a Lone Star Rail (LSTAR) stop in Austin. Courtesy of LSRD.

Lone Star Rail District (LSRD), a proposed passenger rail project that would run between Austin and San Antonio, is seeking funding from VIA Metropolitan Transit.

District officials asked the VIA board of trustees on Tuesday to make room in the transit agency’s 2016 fiscal year (FY) budget to allocate $500,000. LSRD also asked VIA to consider a joint operations agreement that would last up to six years. The $500,000 request would be a one-time payment to support start-up maintenance and operations.

LSRD has also recently asked the City of San Antonio and Bexar County to each allocate $500,000 annually, starting with FY 2016, until they each reach a total of $2 million in operating and maintenance funds for the project.

The Lone Star Rail (LSTAR) line supporters say the estimated $2.4 billion regional rail system will be a way for commuters to avoid congested roads between San Antonio and Austin. They also see potential for economic growth and improved entertainment and higher education access in one of the nation’s fastest growing regions.

LSRD proposes upgrading the current Union Pacific railroad that runs parallel to Interstate 35 between San Antonio and Austin for passengers at an estimated cost of $800 million. LSRD would first build a $1.6 billion freight line from San Antonio to Seguin to Taylor, east of Round Rock, taking the freight traffic off the existing line.

LSTAR would take about 18,000 vehicles, or 20,000 people, off I-35 every day, according to Tullos Wells, a local attorney who serves as vice chairman of the LSRD Board of Directors. That’s about 10% of daily traffic.

Wells described Austin-San Antonio I-35 corridor as “a serial killer.” He said about 100 people die in accidents on this section of I-35 every year.

These one-time capital construction costs would be supported by state and federal grants, and the private sector. But first, the district wants assurances from governmental entities along its route – from San Antonio to Georgetown – that they will pay for continued maintenance and operations at each stop.

If approved by City Council in its own FY 2016 budget, San Antonio’s initial $500,000 contribution would consist of funds from the city’s general fund and property tax revenue derived from a Transportation Infrastructure Zone (TIZ) around each local station. LSRD proposes 16 station locations for the entire system, including six in the San Antonio area.

On the northern side of the rail line, the City of Austin has approved a joint operating agreement but has not asked to provide a guaranteed funding figure in its pact with the district.

Joseph Black, LSRD’s rail director, later said the Transportation Infrastructure Zones in the Austin area are projected to be in prime pieces of real estate east of town. Those zones have potential to produce more revenue than the money that the city could allocate from its budget.

“Those TIZ’s would likely outperform what the city of Austin could provide on its own,” Black said. “On the other side, the planned TIZ locations in San Antonio would likely not perform as well. They would be in tax-exempt areas like the airport.”
The City and the County will consider the funding requests for their respective budgets that must be adopted by Sept. 30.

As part of its pact with VIA, Wells told trustees that the rail district could work to help improve parts of the transit agency’s infrastructure. “Lone Star is keenly aware VIA does not receive the same level of funding as other major metropolitan transit authorities in Texas,” Wells added.

Wells and Black maintained that operating/funding agreements would include a six-year measurement. If for some reason the rail project has made little to no progress in that time, a participating entity may opt to back out and its allocated money would be returned.

The VIA board will consider the funding request when it adopts its FY 2016 operating budget in September. Several trustees said they like what they see from LSRD’s plans.

“I am looking forward to the project’s completion,” said Board Chairwoman Hope Andrade.

“This makes us really multi-modal,” Dr. Richard Gambitta said. He added that the project benefits VIA and offers economic advantages to San Antonio.

Black said LSRD will soon approach Alamo Colleges with a funding request. Lone Star already has an operating agreement with the Austin Community College District.

District officials have said a regional commuter rail will provide students along the Austin-San Antonio corridor a more efficient way to commute to out-of-town educational institutions.

*Featured/top image: Rendering of a Lone Star Rail (LSTAR) stop in Austin. Courtesy of LSRD.

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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.