by ZACHARY BARTON
The subway, underground, tube, ‘L’, metro, rail, rapid transit, or simply the train. Whatever we decide to call it colloquially, due to what Executive Director of Lone Star Rail Ross Milloy calls, “almost universally positive” political feedback, Central Texas will begin to see construction on a commuter rail system, or LSTAR, in the next three to four years.
Last week, Rail Manager Joe Black from Lone Star Rail District – a public agency created by the Texas Legislature – presented the plans to Kyle City Council.
He explained that the new rail system plans to address three main issues: congestion on Interstate 35, public safety and economic development. To do this, Lone Star Rail, in coordination with the cities, counties and transit agencies stretching from Georgetown to San Antonio, has devised a multi-tiered solution.
The first and most under-appreciated step is to build new and improve existing tracks to create an Urban Freight Rail Bypass stretching from San Antonio to Taylor. Then, existing Union Pacific freight trains will be diverted to this eastern route. This will decrease traffic congestion at urban railroad crossings as well as allow freight trains to move at a faster speed. The faster speed will, in turn, make Union Pacific more competitive with trucking and therefore eventually decrease the NAFTA truck traffic on I-35.
The second step is to upgrade existing tracks and infrastructure to build a commuter rail system that will stretch from San Antonio to Georgetown.
According to current plans, initial service could begin as early as 2016, with expanded service by 2021, and full service – as many as 32 trains per day – by 2026. Milloy expressed his excitement about the future alternative for commuters by putting to words the commonly held belief, “there’s only so much you can do on I-35.”
For local residents interested in using LSTAR, immediate plans call for a stop by the future ACC campus in Kyle at F.M. 626 and Kohler’s Crossing, as well as a stop in San Marcos near the Justice Center. A stop in Buda is in the mid-range plans, but the location has not yet been determined.
When service begins, options for local commuters will be limited to Park & Ride or being dropped off at a rail stop. However, once service expands, the plan is to make the system completely integrated.
The ‘Last Mile Problem,’ where trains get you close, but not all the way to your destination, will be solved through a combination of options. LSTAR will be connected to CapMetro, Austin’s future urban rail, University of Texas shuttles, Texas State shuttles, rail and bus options in San Antonio, and eventually bus options in Buda and Kyle through a fully integrated ticketing system accessed by smart phones or smart tickets (stored value cards). Lone Star Rail is also seeking to form partnerships with private car-share and bike-share companies.
The important question at this point is, ‘sounds great, but how much will it cost?’ For local residents, the answer is, not as much as you might think, because of the economic development that will come with the rail system. Black said, “Our goal is to keep it affordable and we are committed to live within our means.”
Lone Star Rail plans to raise the initial capital funds from larger cities, state and federal matching funds, and private investment. Smaller cities such as Kyle and Buda will be asked to contribute to on-going costs after subtracting fares and advertising revenue from costs.
It should be clear, however, Lone Star Rail is not asking for new taxes. Instead, they are asking for local jurisdictions to contribute in-kind donations such as existing cleaning crews and police officers as well as a percentage of the growth in sales tax revenue and real estate value taxes that will be created by the economic development throughout the city and especially near the train stops.