Updated at 2:21 p.m. July 18 to correct TRE ridership and reference to urban rail.
In the 16 years since Central Texas began exploring the possibility of commuter rail service that would connect Hays County with Austin and San Antonio, no tracks have been laid and no stations have been built, but Joe Black, Lone Star Rail District manager, is confident that commuter rail is coming.
“There’s a great deal of work that’s been done,” Black said. “There are some hoops you have to jump through and boxes you have to check off if you expect the federal government to provide funding for your projects. We’ve jumped through those hoops and checked those boxes.”
The final phase of the project before construction begins is an environmental study, which LSRD Planning Director Alison Schulze said could be completed by 2016.
Conceptual plans for stations in Hays County include a stop near the Austin Community College campus at the intersection of FM 1626 and Kohler’s Crossing in Kyle and a stop at the former Hays County Justice Center in San Marcos. Buda is also included in the environmental impact study, a sign that the city could get a station in one of the later phases of the project, Schulze said.
“We have made a commitment to the mayor, City Council, city manager and everybody that Buda probably isn’t big enough right now to have their own station, so in the early phase, Kyle and Buda will share a station,” Schulze said. “But we have every intention of including Buda as a possible future station.”
The system will most likely begin providing service gradually. Black said the first phase could come online as soon as 2019 and will probably include stops in downtown Austin and Hays County.
“I think we would probably want to have all the way down to San Marcos open and at least as far as the Travis and Williamson county line open in the first phase,” Black said.
Costs and benefits
According to an economic impact study from 2007, stations in Buda, Kyle and San Marcos could bring an additional $107.4 million in property tax revenue to the three cities by 2033. Additionally, taxable sales within the 15 proposed station areas on the route are projected to increase by $10.7 billion cumulatively through 2033.
Buda Mayor Todd Ruge said the potential benefits are clear, but city officials will have to weigh those benefits against the potential costs of putting a station in Buda.
“On paper it looks great, but when you attach a dollar amount to it, you figure out if it’s something that will work for your community or not,” Ruge said.
The district charges members a $50,000 annual fee, which covers operations. The capital costs—things such as rail cars and stations—would be funded mostly through growth in taxable property values and sales.
Once the rail is operational, the day-to-day operations and maintenance will be funded evenly between Austin and Travis County, San Antonio and Bexar County and all the other municipalities and counties—including San Marcos, Kyle, Buda and Hays County.
On June 25, Georgetown City Council voted to dissolve the city’s membership in the LSRD. Place 4 Councilman Steve Fought, who voted in favor of dissolving the membership, said the city was taking on too much risk by agreeing to help fund the rail line. Fought questioned whether LSRD’s development plan relies too heavily on growth that is not guaranteed.
Black said the district has gone to great lengths to ensure LSRD members face very little risk.
“We’re trying to limit what we call ‘budget shock,'” Black said. “We’re not just going to hand them a bill for $1 million. We’re going to let them grow into the service.”
Will Conley, Hays County Precinct 3 commissioner, said the county is not looking to follow Georgetown’s lead.
“I think Hays County is getting a good value for our investment in the Lone Star Rail program,” Conley said. “It’s an important program with a lot of foresight behind it.”
Conley noted that as the population of Central Texas grows, the ability to provide adequate capacity for travelers on I-35 diminishes.
“Every option is going to be extremely expensive,” he said. “There is no more low-hanging fruit anywhere.”
A ‘difficult lift’
Joe Lessard, a consultant for the LSRD, estimated the entire project would cost $1.8 billion–$2.4 billion.
“It takes time. It takes a lot of patience and persistence, but clearly it’s doable because other cities are doing it and have done it,” Lessard said. “I think what really gets people’s attention is that they understand I-35 is not going to be our solution.”
Lessard pointed to the Trinity Railway Express, a commuter train between Dallas and Fort Worth, as an example for Austin to follow.
According to the TRE web site, more than 4,000 passengers rode the TRE on its first day of service in 1996. Today, the estimated daily ridership has topped 8,000.
Michael Miles, vice president of governmental relations for Dallas Area Rapid Transit, which partnered with the Fort Worth Transportation Authority to form the TRE, has been with the organization since the discussions about the commuter rail began in 1983.
The TRE project took about 13 years to complete and covers about a quarter of the distance of the Central Texas project, he said.
“If it was easy, they’d sell it in a bottle,” Miles said. “It’s a pretty difficult lift. There are a lot of moving parts, and you have to catch a real opportunity, and once you have that opportunity, you have to be really focused on that.”
However, the result of bringing the DART online was worth the effort, he said. When urban rail came to Dallas developments began springing up near the stations, riders got quick rides from point A to point B, and downtowns in cities such as Carrollton, Plano and Garland were revitalized. Areas around the commuter rail stations have seen slower growth, but Miles said as the the local economy improves he expects growth along the commuter rail to begin catching up.
“That small downtown that was a railroad town 50 or 80 years ago is now a hopping little rediscovered area,” Miles said of the DART system.
Black said the estimate that the rail line could come online as early as 2019 assumes every step in the process—environmental studies, coordination between the district and municipalities, relocation of Union Pacific freight—goes perfectly according to plan, and so far, things have not gone that way.
But after years of economic impact assessments, feasibility studies and ridership modeling, he believes the project is gaining momentum.
“It really does feel like things are aligning,” Black said. “The right people are in the right positions, and circumstances and conditions are such that people are getting sick of the traffic, tired of their long commutes. It’s becoming an issue in people’s minds, even if they don’t know it.”