Round Rock's and Union Pacific's interests intersect along tracks running through town

What do a bridge, a lawsuit and a train whistle have in common? In Round Rock, the common thread is Union Pacific—the multibillion-dollar railroad company that controls the nation's largest network of rail lines, including those running through Round Rock.

The city is currently involved in three separate negotiations with Union Pacific to construct an overpass on RM 620, establish a no-warning-horn quiet zone and settle a lawsuit over the ownership of McNeil Road.

"We have three of the most controversial projects right now in the area, and they all involve Union Pacific," Round Rock Transportation Director Gary Hudder said. "It just happens to be coincidental. They are really three very independent issues, but ... it's all 'U-P' all the time. That's our life at the moment."

The ownership of the rail lines and the ability to regulate car traffic near and across them is no small matter in Round Rock considering the city's geography.

The Palestine Line of the Union Pacific bisects Round Rock's northern and southern halves—entering the city's southwest corner near Toll 45 and MoPac and cutting northeast along McNeil Road and Hwy. 79.

A second line, the Georgetown Spur, separates from the Palestine Line near I-35 and McNeil Road and heads north on a path roughly parallel to the interstate.

All of Round Rock's major east-west thoroughfares north of McNeil Road—RM 620, Sam Bass Road, Old Settlers Boulevard and FM 1431—cross the Union Pacific tracks.

The net result is Union Pacific holds a controlling interest in how Round Rock commutes, builds roads and develops.

"The biggest problem with what is really valuable industrial property ... is the railroad," Hudder said. "With the railroad there, you might as well put up a wall. It just becomes so difficult to build up property when you have to deal with the railroad. It just cuts like a knife right through the city."

RM 620 overpass

Traffic on RM 620 east of I-35 is a problem, according to Round Rock transportation officials. Rush-hour traffic often backs up across the I-35 overpass to the east and beyond Round Rock High School to the west with commuters traveling off of and on to the interstate.

Compounding the traffic is the railroad crossing near Chisholm Trail Road. The city has spent years trying to develop a plan to build an overpass over the crossing in order to alleviate the traffic congestion. The requirements needed to move forward—Texas Department of Transportation construction approval, Union Pacific authorization and land acquisitions—have kept the project on hold.

"We've got some confining challenges," Hudder said. "We have gone back to the drawing board and started from scratch.

"The railroad is the big unknown. Any time you cross [Union Pacific's] right of way, you have to get their permission."

The Round Rock Transportation Department's plan now is to augment the ground-level section of RM 620 with a flyover portion that would bypass all of the intersections and rail crossings between Deepwood Drive and I-35. RM 620 would still exist as separated, one-way streets at ground level, allowing access to existing businesses and neighborhoods in the area.

"There is going to be a significant amount of right of way acquisitions that would be required," Hudder said.

One purchase the city is considering is the acquisition of The Commons office and retail complex, located at the southwest corner of Chisholm Trail Road and RM 620. Round Rock City Council met in executive session Aug. 23 to discuss the purchase, but did not reach a decision.

Hudder estimates the entire project should cost the city $8 million to $9 million, depending on the cost of land and materials. Hudder said construction may begin in 2014, if everything falls into place.

The biggest "if" of the project, however, remains Union Pacific approval. The railroad will consider potential liability and insurance costs before giving consent.

"What we look at is what makes the community safer," Union Pacific spokeswoman Raquel Espinoza said. "But we are always interested in talking with communities on these projects."

Who owns McNeil Road?

Nearly 140 years after the original land was selected for running train tracks through Round Rock, a multimillion-dollar debate has surfaced over who owns the rights to the land running parallel to the tracks along McNeil Road.

During the first 90 years of McNeil Road's operation, no one brought into question the ownership of the road. Then in 1987, according to City of Round Rock documents, as the city was preparing for a series of road improvements, it was discovered that parts of the road may have sat within the right of way of the original International-Great Northern tracks.

According to city records, the city informed the railroad of the potential property conflict and subsequently entered into a 25-year, $3,495 lease for the property. City officials now say the lease was exercised to save the costs of researching who owned the land—not as an acknowledgment of ownership by the railroad.

According to Williamson County District Court documents filed June 25 by Round Rock City Attorney Steve Sheets, "Because of the relatively small costs incurred by [Round Rock] for the 1987 leases, the City did not research the title on McNeil Road ... it simply was not worth the expense."

With the leases set to expire this year, however, Union Pacific reassessed the value of the property, and on Jan. 16 sent a letter to the city demanding $4,961,307 to renew another 25-year lease agreement.

"[Union Pacific] conducted an appraisal based on the property values nearby," Espinoza said. "As these agreements expire, like any land owner, we take a look at whether the property values have increased."

The City of Round Rock responded by filing a lawsuit June 25 in the Williamson County District Court. The suit alleges the railroad lost all rights to the property long ago through statutes of limitations and that Union Pacific should not only relinquish all claims to the property, but also refund all previous payments.

"The court will determine who is the owner of the property," Sheets said.

Sheets said if the court rules in favor of the railroad, it is unlikely the city would consider entering into a lease at the price offered by Union Pacific—which the city believes far exceeds the value of the land.

"If the judge determines the railroad owns the property, then we are into eminent domain," Sheets said.

Sheets said the case could take years to resolve through the courts. In the meantime, the question of ownership of McNeil Road hangs in limbo.

"We are looking at a number of possibilities," Espinoza said. "We have had discussions with the city, and we are hoping to come up with a solution in the near future."

Quiet zones

Railroad quiet zones have become a trend in communities tiring of the noise of train warning horns. The noise has increased since 1994, when the Federal Railroad Authority began mandating trains sound their warning horns at all road crossings.

A compromise was established in 2005 when the FRA began allowing "quiet zones"—a series of crossings engineered to prevent train-on-car collisions. If cities fund the construction of the zones, train engineers may pass through the intersections without sounding their horns.

"[Round Rock] has been working on this for three to four years," said Chad Wood, Round Rock city traffic engineer. "Quiet zones are a quality-of-life issue."

Wood said the city identified seven public crossings that would need modifications or closure to establish the quiet zone. The crossings all intersect the Union Pacific Palestine Line along McNeil Road and Hwy. 79. Wood said the route sees an average of about 29 trains per day.

The city is considering closing the crossing at St. Williams Street because of space confinements that would not allow for building the safety features required, a move some residents fear would increase traffic congestion in the area. Round Rock hosted a public discussion Aug. 23 to answer residents' questions about the proposed zones.

"I understand there is a concern that [the trains] are very loud," Round Rock resident Jeannette Graham said. "And maybe when [residents] bought [near the tracks] the frequency of the train traffic was not as great as it is now. But I purposely didn't buy a house that was that close to the railroad tracks because I knew that was going to be a problem."

The next steps in the process are designing the crossings, securing the funding from the city and agreeing to terms with Union Pacific. The railroad must agree to any designs and receive payment for the project before construction begins.

"It has been a major planning effort ... but the engineering challenges are not that steep," Wood said. "[Union Pacific] will actually do 90 percent of the construction."

Hudder estimates that with the aid of federal grants, Round Rock's cost to build the zones would range between $1.5 million and $2 million.

"I would say about 90 percent of the residents we have spoke with support the quiet zones," Hudder said.