DALLAS - A new bypass that would open up existing freight tracks for commuter rail between Austin and San Antonio would cost $2.4 billion, with the means of financing yet to be identified, according to a report from the Texas Department of Transportation released yesterday.
TxDOT undertook the study with an eye toward relieving highway congestion and improving public transportation with less air pollution while also improving safety. Commuter rail has grown in favor among cities in the Southwest. Austin later this year inaugurates its first commuter rail line from the northern suburb of Leander to downtown.
"Commuter rail service between Austin and San Antonio has been desired for some time, and relocation of through-trains to a possible bypass would allow for these plans to materialize," the report noted. "The relocation of freight rail operations would lessen grade crossing impedance, provide an alternative to vehicular travel, and capture the benefits of transit-oriented development."
To be viable and avoid delays, the commuter rail line would need a track separate from the freight trains that use Union Pacific's lines, according to the report. More than 20 freight trains a day use the Union Pacific lines near San Antonio, intersecting more than 200 roads and highways.
TxDOT and Union Pacific have been in talks for years. An agreement would be needed before any work could begin, as would a means of funding. The study identified $1.4 billion of public benefits from the proposal, including $106 million from increased property values. The state also expects to use any acquired right of way for utilities that would generate additional revenue.
The study maps out a 145-mile bypass around the two cities less than 80 miles apart.
Voters approved a 2005 constitutional amendment creating a rail relocation fund, which failed to win actual appropriations in the 2007 session of the Texas Legislature. Houston, Dallas, and Fort Worth are expected to compete for rail-relocation funds, as well, when funding is considered.
Similarly, the Austin-San Antonio Intermunicipal Commuter Rail District created by the Legislature to build and run passenger trains between the two cities has weak taxing authority limited to property taxes from development that might occur around train stations. The agency has used federal funds for planning over the last 10 years.
Amtrak, which offers limited runs between the two cities, is often delayed by Union Pacific trains.
In the central Texas region, Union Pacific's system spans nearly 600 miles of track that connects international trade centers at Brownsville, El Paso, Corpus Christi, Galveston, Houston, and Laredo. In addition to the primary freight of coal and chemicals, the trains are carrying an increasing load of products to and from Mexico under the North American Free Trade Agreement, the TxDOT report noted.
"As a result, the volume of train traffic throughout the network has increased to the point where the bottlenecks and pinch-points along the system have begun to affect the timeliness of freight shipments and impact other public and private transportation sectors," the study found.