Two Passenger Railway Projects Will Bring Transportation Alternative to Texas
Two passenger rail projects are proposed for central Texas, offering the traveling public potential balm to partially soothe what ails the state's transportation system.
The publicly-run and privately operated Lone Star Regional Rail project promises to provide commuters with a faster, cheaper, more reliable transportation alternative to I-35 for 118 miles between Georgetown, Austin and San Antonio.
Texas Central Partners is seeking investment for its proposed, 240-mile long high-speed passenger rail - the Texas Central Railway project - that would transport passengers on a less-than-90-minute trip between the Dallas-Fort Worth metroplex and Houston. That venture would be entirely privately funded, owned and operated.
Houston, Dallas-Fort Worth and Austin rank among the top 15 most congested metro areas in the nation, according to the 2015 Urban Mobility Scorecard from the Texas A&M Transportation Institute (TTI) and the data company Inrix.
And it's only going to get worse as the state continues in its current trajectory of rapid growth.
About 1,000 people move to Texas each day, and another 18 million vehicles are expected to clog Texas arteries by 2040, according to Move Texas Forward, a non-profit corporation with a mission to educate Texans about the state's infrastructure needs and advocate for funding and policies to support expanded infrastructure.
"Without the proper investment, gridlock and roadway safety will worsen, and our economy and quality of life will suffer," said Jack Ladd, the non-profit's President. "Even Prop 7 won't make a whole bunch of new roads and fix all of our problems," he added, referring to the amendment on the November 3 ballot that will divert an estimated $2.5 billion in sales tax annually to the state's highway fund beginning September 1, 2017.
"Prop 7 will only ensure we stay at 2010 congestion levels," Ladd said.
Easing the state's festering traffic woes "enough to keep our heads above water" will require a combination of "road capacity improvements, better mass transit, technology advances like self-driving vehicles, and rail," said Joseph Black, Rail Director for the Lone Star Rail District and Regional Rail Project.
TTI and Inrix agree, citing in the 2015 Urban Mobility Scorecard the necessity for "a balanced and diversified approach" that includes more policies, programs, projects, flexibility, options and understanding.
As one example of how rail can benefit, the Metropolitan Planning Organization data for the capital area indicates that 12 to 14 additional vehicle lanes will be needed in Austin by 2035.
"LSTAR passenger trains can provide the equivalent of two to eight additional highway lanes to the region's transportation system from Williamson to Bexar County," Black said.
He added that many of the people relocating to Texas and swelling its populace are coming from regions that already have well-developed rail systems, including California, Chicago and New York.
"When I give presentations, people often tell me they can't believe there isn't already a train," Black said. "A lot of them see rail service as an amenity. As more people move here, the expectation for more alternatives to driving will increase."
From Gridlock Anxiety to Safe Passage
Black added that "anyone who has ever white-knuckled it down I-35 just cursing your life that you are having to drive down that road" would surely welcome the arrival of the LSTAR.
"In the course of negotiating with various entities up and down the footprint of the Lone Star Rail project, I am on I-35 four days out of five," Black said. "There are so many times that I say to myself, "˜I wish I had a train I could take at this point.' It's bad, and getting worse every day."
Riding the LSTAR will reduce travel time and be more reliable than driving on I-35, he added.
"Because it is so congested at all times of the day, it's difficult to predict when you will arrive anywhere," Black said. "I will often allow 20 minutes to an hour extra."
Because the LSTAR runs on its own right of way, it is unaffected by those travel conditions.
The LSTAR will be a hybrid of a commuter train and intercity rail, Black explained.
Not only will it provide 75-minute express service from downtown Austin to downtown San Antonio, with a stop in San Marcos, it will also provide up to 32 trains per day at full service, including midday and evening service, seven days a week, in each direction for commuters, students and other regional travelers.
"Our planned maximum speed is 75to 80 mph, so it's not high speed rail," Black said. "When TTI analyzed traffic in 2013, it was determined that 80 percent of central Texas' traffic is locally generated, not long distance. That's the market that commuter rail like LSTAR best addresses."
LSTAR's service areas in Williamson, Travis, Hays, Bexar, Bastrop and Caldwell Counties, as well as the Austin Community College District, will have connectivity to other transit agencies, including Capital Metro, CARTS, VIA and ART.
"Bicycle riders will have the option to bring their bikes on board because there will be at least one dedicated bike car per train, like they have in northern California, where the bottom level has bike racks," Black said.
Cyclists may also opt to keep their bikes in a locker at the station, or to take advantage of bike sharing.
"We intend to make all of this seamless," Black said. "When you purchase fare for the LSTAR train, you can also purchase and/or reserve your preferred connection, including rideshare companies like Uber and Lyft. We plan to provide maximum choices for travelers to get where they need to go."
The LSTAR line will include up to 24 stations with ample, secure parking, and comfortable waiting areas. The passenger cars will include amenities such as wireless Internet access, snack bars, beverage service and restrooms.
Consequently, just like commuters in other major metropolitan areas, Texans will be able to optimize that travel time to rest, do some work, or socialize, instead of getting stressed out.
"The LSTAR will have tons of stuff to do that is infinitely more enjoyable than being stuck in traffic on I-35," Black assured.
Noting that Texans' independent streak tends to run very deep, Black knows that not everyone will want to give up his or her personal vehicle to ride the rails.
"There are also a lot of trips that LSTAR won't serve, like picking up your kids from school or daycare, or going grocery shopping," he said. "The main thing is it offers people a real alternative, one that is more reliable than driving, is faster, and saves on the cost of gas and insurance. Now, people have no choice but to drive."
As many Austin citizens will attest, the first bit of advice locals usually give to transplants is to "live close to where you work," Black said.
Most middle class people can't afford to live downtown, so they are forced to move to the suburbs and commute. Furthermore, for two-wage-earner households, invariably, someone is forced to commute.
"With 70 to 80 cars per day coming into the area and using the transportation system, sooner or later, driving will be so much of a hassle that people will be yearning for an alternative that makes sense," Black said.
Using Existing Rail Options
Whereas highway expansion capability is limited, the LSTAR will run on existing rail rights of way. In Austin, for example, the LSTAR will run in the median of the MoPAC improvement project.
Under a deal with Union Pacific railroad, the Lone Star Rail District is building the freight company a new rail line parallel to and east of State Highway 130.
"Once we finish that, Union Pacific will turn over ownership of their line between Taylor and San Antonio to the Lone Star Rail District, and that line will no longer carry through freight," Black said. "It will be dedicated to LSTAR and Amtrak passenger trains, and some local freight trains."
Putting more passengers on the rail, as opposed to the highways, will also improve safety along the I-35 Austin-San Antonio corridor, which is currently deemed one of the nation's deadliest, with an average of 100 fatalities each year.
"The LSTAR will reduce the number of safety hazards at crossings for both the railroad and motorists," Black said.
The Lone Star Rail District will make upgrades to the existing UPRR rails and crossings, including the addition of safety improvements such as four-quadrant gates and channelization to prohibit driving around lowered crossing gates.
Funding the Project
LSTAR has several different funding sources, Black explained. The $60 to $80 million of planning work to date, including the ongoing environmental impact studies, has been funded through state and federal grant funds.
The project will be constructed as a public private partnership, so funding for that will come from three main sources - federal grants and loans, the state, and the private sector.
"Ongoing operations and maintenance funding will be provided by the local jurisdictions getting service, including cities, counties and community college districts," Black said. "The Lone Star Rail District will own the assets, and they will be privately operated by a large, design-build, operate and maintain contractor."
The rail district will begin the process to bring aboard a contractor/P3 partner in the first quarter of 2016, and final design and construction should begin by the end of 2018.
It's significant that the project is being handled by the rail district, which is an accountable public agency, noted Black, to ensure that taxpayer money is being used appropriately.
"Anytime you're expending public money, you have to have someone who is answerable to the public, people who can be voted out if the people don't like the decisions they make," he said.
He added that the Lone Star Rail District operates with "complete transparency," and invites the public to attend its quarterly board meetings in San Marcos.
Moving Between Houston and Dallas-Forth Worth
Conversely, Texas Central Partners (TCP) operates as a Texas-based private company that is backed entirely by private investors, employing a market-led approach.
That company's proposed project, Texas Central Railway, promises to provide the ideal solution for the more than 50,000 super-commuters who travel between Houston and Dallas-Fort Worth more than once a week.
TCP plans to deploy a "N700-I Bullet" high-speed rail system currently used by Central Japan Railway Company to whisk passengers at speeds of up to 205 mph between the two cities every hour. According to initial designs, the system will be constructed on an elevated viaduct and powered by an overhead catenary system, with an "advanced regenerative braking system that conserves and converts kinetic energy into electric power to slow the train," according to a press release from TCP.
TCP has secured the backing of Dallas to Houston Constructors (DHC), a joint venture between Archer Western Construction and Ferrovial Agroman US Corp, that will provide work valued by TCP at $130 million.
Combined with the $75 million in capital raised from other investors, DHC's in-kind commitment means TCP has secured more than $200 million in capital and work product toward its goal of $400 million needed to be committed to the project before moving into final construction.
However, the company has faced tremendous pushback from landowners who don't want a train whizzing through their property at breakneck speed. According to reports in the Dallas Morning News, eight counties along the proposed route have already signed resolutions opposing the project.
An independent study estimates the project will spur economic benefits of more than $36 billon over the next 25 ears. This includes a possibility of nearly $2.5 billion in tax revenue to the state, counties, local municipalities and school districts between now and 2040.
The project could also create 10,000 jobs over the four-year construction process and 1,000 permanent jobs when the rail line opens.
"This is an unprecedented multi-billion-dollar private investment in the state's future," said Tim Keith, Chief Executive Officer of TCP. "The overall economic impact is incredible and it's real. The project will directly benefit each of the counties along the route and provide additional resources to the state and local communities to help fund transportation or any other needs and ambitions they choose to support."