Note: This is the second of a three part series on commuter rail on the 1-35 corridor. Read the first here.
An old proverb tells us that the devil is in the details. So it goes with bringing commuter rail to the Austin/San Antonio I-35 corridor. While there isn’t a particular devil to lay blame on, the infrastructure issues surrounding this are causing concern to many that are involved in trying bring passenger rail to the corridor.
Union Pacific (UP) owns the rail lines that commuter rail will need to use, and there is a lot of work that remains to be done so all parties can be satisfied. Currently over 25 trains a day make use of the tracks on the I-35 corridor.
“For the moment we don’t have a plan on rerouting rail traffic,” said Raquel Espinoza, Director of Corporate Relations & Media for Texas and the surrounding states. Espinoza also categorized their collaboration so far with the Austin/San Antonio Commuter Rail District (ASA) as not being formal negotiations.
A major issue is that currently UP does not have any other available routes to reroute traffic to. State Highway 130, a toll road which is currently under construction that, when completed, will run from Georgetown to Seguin, could provide an alternative. Yet, as all of this is still being negotiated and planned, no real promises can be made.
SH 130 is being built in segments. According to their website (www.sh130.com) the road is, “…a 49-mile tollway extending from Interstate 35 north of Georgetown southward to U.S. 183 southeast of Austin, passing though Williamson and Travis Counties. The project is expected to be completed in Spring 2008. SH 130 will be a four-lane roadway with toll facilities and major interchanges at I-35, U.S. 79, SH 45 North, U.S. 290 and SH 71. The design of SH 130 will also include limited and discontinuous frontage roads.”
In the published minutes of ASA’s meeting on June 6th, 2003 during the legislative update they put forth their vision for SH130 as, “…a bill proposed by Senator Wentworth and Senator Barrientos that passed. Because of this bill, TxDOT is authorized to use funds for Project 130 to make it rail compatible. The language also states that it is the legislators’ intent and hope to make SH 130 compatible and they hope that TxDOT will comply.
Legislative intent aside these seems to be a disconnect between ASA’s goals and UP’s needs. Both parties agree that it is possible freight rail traffic can be diverted, but doing so is going to cost a great deal. UP will possibly have to assume the costs of building new tracks and altering their infrastructure to accommodate commuter rail depending on what the Texas Department of Transportation can offer.
“We’re pleased with the line we have now,” said Joe Adams, Vice President of Public Affairs for UP’s southern region. Adams pointed to the current lines running along the I-35 corridor having the right kind of uphill grade, right of way and curvature for their needs. Rail lines, according to Adams, need one to two percent uphill grade to be safe. Highways, on the other hand can have up to six or seven percent.
When asked about previous statements by ASA officials regarding the flexible timetables of freight rail traffic Espinoza said, “I definitely disagree. We have schedules that are mapped out to serve our customers…our customers would disagree. We have companies that are counting on us.”
Because of skyrocketing gas prices many companies now prefer to use rail as a more cost effective method of delivery as opposed to using 18-wheelers.
“Lots of companies have turned to rail,” said Espinoza. “It’s the most environmentally friendly way to transport freight.” Espinoza also pointed out the environmental benefits of getting more 18-wheeler trucks off the highway and that if 10 percent of the freight moved by highway were diverted to rail, the nation could save as much as 1 billion gallons of fuel annually.
However, despite these differences, UP has expressed a willingness to work with the district. “We do anticipate meeting with ASA soon.” Espinoza said. “We are fine with sitting down with them as long as we can get a plan that works for everybody.”
By SEAN WARDWELL