It’s a project that many stakeholders, decision-makers, and citizens in central and south Texas believe is long overdue — a regional intercity passenger rail system connecting the cities and towns in the Interstate 35 corridor of the Austin-San Antonio region. Lone Star Rail District (LSTAR) is working to turn that belief into reality with a multi-year plan to not only introduce that new passenger service, but also to support a major improvement in freight rail throughput in the important, nationally significant north-south trade corridor between south Texas and the American heartland.
Interstate 35 between Austin and San Antonio is one of the most congested segments of roadway both in Texas and in the nation. It is the only interstate highway that connects Mexico and Canada with the middle of the United States, and it carries an overwhelmingly larger percentage of United States-Mexico trade than any other interstate highway. Because of Texas’ position astride this major north-south trade route, transportation issues for Texas have national reach and national significance; in fact, approximately 80 percent of Mexico’s trade with the United States and Canada under the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) passes through Texas, and 75 percent of that trade is transported by truck on I-35. Truck freight traffic in this (nationally significant) corridor has been growing at a steady rate since the 1990s, with a 400 percent increase from current volumes considered likely by 2030. In practical numbers, it will grow from about 3,000 trucks per day to about 15,000 trucks per day over the next 20 years.
At the same time, the population of the state is growing rapidly as many families relocate to south and central Texas, which enjoys a high standard of living and relatively lower unemployment as compared to many other areas of the United States for a comparatively lower cost. Nearly half of the population of the state lives within 50 miles of the I-35 corridor, making it a crucial link for passenger mobility. The recently released 2010 census shows that three of the five counties that make up the LSTAR service territory — Bexar, Travis and Williamson — are now among the most populous in the state. From 2000 to 2010, Bexar and Travis County grew by 20 and 26 percent respectively, while Williamson County grew by an astounding 67 percent in the same time period, and San Antonio surpassed Dallas as Texas’ second most populous city. More than 3 million people now live in the Austin-San Antonio region, according to the census.
The 2010 Texas Transportation Institute Urban Mobility Report ranked Austin third worst in the nation by travel time index, the ratio of travel time in the peak period to travel time at free-flow conditions. San Antonio ranked 32nd worst. That measure and others, such as wasted fuel and congestion costs, are expected to worsen at an accelerating rate as NAFTA volumes and population grow. The resulting demand for freight and passenger transportation will soon overwhelm highway capacity, which cannot be enhanced or increased significantly in the corridor due to physical, environmental and financial constraints.
The current Union Pacific Railroad (UPRR) freight rail corridor between San Antonio and Austin hosts 30-plus “through” freight trains per day that originate and terminate outside of the region plus five to six local freight trains per day that serve customers in the region, mostly rock quarries. The line, which passes through the urban cores of Austin, San Antonio and all of the cities and towns in between, is capacity-constrained and doesn’t offer much possibility for large-scale growth for the freight railroad. The presence of so many freight trains moving through the urban cores and downtowns of the cities in the corridor also creates problems for automobile traffic, and exposes the freight railroads to accident risk at the 130-plus highway-rail grade crossings up and down the line.