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Texans eye new commuter-rail line

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With a catchy new name and wads of cash, the LSTAR has left the station, the San Antonio Express-News reports. The Lone Star Rail District said that it's moving closer to a goal of connecting San Antonio to Austin and beyond with a commuter rail line.

"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.

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