Note: This is the beginning of a three part series on commuter rail on the 1-35 corridor. The Austin-San Antonio Commuter Rail District was authorized by the legislature in 2002 and had its first meeting in February of 2003, consisting of representatives from Austin, San Antonio, and the cities and counties along the I-35 corridor. Since then it has been making progress at bringing municipal rail to the corridor. Funding for the project has been defined as a 50-50 split between the Texas Department of Transportation and the local municipal areas that will be using it.
“We’re looking at 1/3 (of the funds) to come from the Austin metropolitan area (which includes the city, county and transportation district), 1/3 from San Antonio, and 1/3 from the smaller communities and counties,” said Allison Schulze, Senior Planner/Administrator for the ASA district.
The entire project is expected to cost $613 million dollars. According to Vernon’s Texas Civil Statutes the district is defined as, “…a political subdivision of the state exercising public and essential governmental functions and has all the powers necessary or convenient to carry out the purposes of this article.” It is subject to sunset review, or legislative review to determine its need, every 12 years. Currently San Marcos and Hays county are represented by Precinct 3 County Commissioner Will Conley and Place 6 City Council member John Thomaides.
Commuter rail differs from light rail in several important areas. Light rail depends on new tracks, new engines, and a whole new infrastructure. Usually light rail trains are electric, with lower speeds and capacity, and are meant for mass public transportation within urban areas. Municipal rail, on the other hand, uses existing tracks and equipment, such as diesel locomotives, to move commuters over longer distances and carry more passengers.
However, as the system uses existing tracks, which are currently owned by Union Pacific, the issue of dispatch rights has come to the forefront. Dispatch rights control who determines when the trains can run. Commuter rail needs to follow a set schedule while freight traffic tends to be more flexible. In a previous interview, William Bingham, the General Counsel for the Austin-San Antonio Intermunicipal Rail District said, “If I’ve got a meeting in San Antonio at noon I need to leave Austin at a certain time to get there. On the other hand, if I’ve got a boxcar load of freight, whether it leaves at 9, 10, or 11 is not real critical. It just needs to go that day.”
The ASA district proposes a route from Georgetown to Central San Antonio, with stops in Austin, Buda/Kyle, San Marcos, New Braunfels, and the San Antonio area. Over the next few weeks this series will explore both the proposed infrastructure of commuter rail along the corridor and plans for how it will be implemented along with reports on negotiations between Union Pacific and the district over when the trains will run and how freight traffic might be routed away from the San Marcos area.
More information can be found at the ASA website at www.asarail.org.
By SEAN WARDWELL