"Passenger rail is coming to San Antonio, Austin and the I-35 corridor," said Tullos Wells, vice chairman of the district's board of directors. "We're going to make it happen."
Formerly known as the Austin-San Antonio Intermunicipal Commuter Rail District, the streamlined Lone Star Rail District - or LSTAR for short - plans to reach out to the public in early 2010 with its preliminary environmental and engineering studies to begin gathering input. The agency will hold dozens of public meetings along the Interstate 35 corridor to discuss the proposed line's environmental impact. At those meetings, officials said, potential locations for train stations will be considered.
The district has multiyear funding commitments from the San Antonio and Austin metropolitan planning organizations and the Texas Department of Transportation for $40 million, and has received another $16.4 million in federal and state dollars. District officials estimate it would cost about $800 million to build a fully functional passenger system.
But the regional rail service can only be realized if Union Pacific relocates its freight trains to a proposed bypass line that would remove through-freight trains from urban centers. Officials estimate the cost of a bypass from the South Side of San Antonio to Taylor would be about $1.7 billion.
"The rail relocation is the key to it. If you don't move the freight out, forget really having a good first-class passenger service," Bexar County Judge Nelson Wolff said.
Wells said he hopes the LSTAR could begin offering "preliminary service" as early as 2012 or 2013.
The caveat is how quickly Union Pacific can move its freight from the line that runs between Austin and San Antonio, he said.
"We know UP needs to move. UP knows they need to move," he said. "It's in their financial best interest."
Wells and other LSTAR officials said UP would benefit financially from relocating its through-freight to a bypass line because it could run trains faster and with more capacity.
But Joe Adams, UP's vice president for public affairs in its southern region, said the company would likely see only modest benefits from relocation.
"It is not a real significant enhancement," he said. "We've got a good existing route. It's direct, and you don't see significant speed reductions," he said. "The most important thing is mileage."
Every extra mile increases fuel and labor costs, he said.
Still, the commuter rail line would help relieve congestion on the highway and improve safety in the corridor, state Sen. Jeff Wentworth said. And it would offer a convenient commute for people traveling between Austin and San Antonio.
Though he says 2013 is "fairly optimistic" for starting passenger service, Wentworth said he believes it will be running within a decade and hopes it can start within five years.