The possibility of a commuter rail connecting the Austin-San Antonio corridor is one step closer to becoming a reality after federal approval was granted to conduct preliminary engineering and environmental impact studies.
The project, known as the Lone Star Rail (LSTAR), received funding from the Capital Area Metropolitan Planning Organization (CAMPO) and the state for required impact studies in the region where the rail will be constructed. Lone Star Rail District board member and City Councilwoman Kim Porterfield, Place 1, said the impact studies are the final step to gaining federal approval for the project and potentially procuring federal funds.
“The fact that we got funding from Capital Area Metropolitan Planning and the State of Texas to do the impact studies is very significant in determining that (the rail) is real,” Porterfield said.
The LSTAR would extend 118 miles from Georgetown to south San Antonio, and run up to 32 trains a day with stops in Round Rock, Austin, Kyle, San Marcos, New Braunfels, Schertz and San Antonio, according to LSTAR’s proposed station guide.
The rail is expected to run parallel to Interstate Highway 35 on the tracks currently owned by Union Pacific to transport freight trains through the region, said Alison Schulze, senior planner for Lone Star Rail District. The majority of the Union Pacific trains are proposed to be rerouted east of IH35, she said. Local trains are expected to operate on the same tracks on a schedule that will allow LSTAR to complete its stops, Schulze said.
Porterfield said advantages of the rail include reduced congestion on IH35 and a relatively brief 75-minute commute between Austin and San Antonio. Porterfield said there is a great deal of support for the project within the San Marcos community.
“San Marcos has been involved from the beginning,” Porterfield said. “The location of the university and geography of San Marcos were both major factors in deciding to add stops here.”
University President Denise Trauth said Texas State administrators have been engaged in conversations with the Lone Star Rail District for about 10 years and are happy the project is nearing completion.
“Without a doubt, the rail will have multiple impacts, all of which I see as being positive,” Trauth said. “What will probably occur is that the rail stop will be within walking distance to the university. It will give more options to students and will bring predictability to their commutes.”
City officials purchased approximately 2 acres of land from Union Pacific last month, which is the proposed site for the downtown station, Porterfield said. She said councilmembers intend to use it as one of the city’s LSTAR stops, though there has been no official vote on the usage of the land. There are plans to add a second station near the San Marcos outlet mall, she said.
Officials in each city with a station on the rail line will be responsible for the maintenance and operation costs of their respective stops, according to the proposal by Lone Star Rail District.
San Marcos officials are considering a funding plan being looked at by Austin and Kyle representatives, which would create “taxing districts.” These districts are proposed to collect revenue from the increased property value of areas within a quarter- to half-mile radius of the stations, Porterfield said.
“In theory, the rail would attract developers, who would want to cash in on the traffic from the station,” Porterfield said. “The taxes from the rise in property value would go into a fund used to pay for maintenance and operation expenses, rather than going to the city fund. They are also considering a paid park-and-ride lot to help fund the station.”
San Marcos officials could have approximately $1 to 1.5 million annually in maintenance and operations expenses under current proposals for the LSTAR, Porterfield said. City councilmembers have approved a resolution to draft a local funding agreement by the end of the year, according to city records.
Lone Star Rail District officials will be seeking private investors and federal funds for capital expenses, the amount of which are still being determined, Schulze said. The possibility of private funding for the LSTAR is contingent upon the completion of the studies, she said.
“There has been a lot of interest from local as well as international investors,” Schulze said. “People are beating down the door.”
The projected completion time for the impact studies is three years, although the date is not set in stone, Schulze said. Once they have been finalized, construction is allowed to begin, a process which is estimated to take three more years, Schulze said.
“We have to go through a very prescribed process with the federal government, so the exact date of completion is out of our control,” Schulze said. “Our best guess right now is that LSTAR will become available in 2019.”