Lone Star Rail resurrected by link to I-35 toll lane debacle
By Terri Hall
Selous Foundation for Public Policy Research
August 24, 2016
The saying that two things are inevitable — death and taxes — just got expanded to three things: death, taxes, and government boondoggles that never die. Yesterday, the day after the Alamo Area Metropolitan Planning Organization (AAMPO) unanimously rejected funding further study of the Lone Star Rail which was on the heels of the Capitol Area Metropolitan Planning Organization (CAMPO) pulling its funding, the Bexar County Commissioners Court passed a resolution to transfer the Lone Star Rail environmental study from the Lone Star Rail District to the Texas Department of Transportation (TxDOT). So now, not only will every Texan’s state gasoline taxes be paying for this rail boondoggle at the state level, the resolution also called for moving the rail corridor over to Interstate-35, despite the Texas GOP platform's plank opposing rail.
The Lone Star Rail project envisions a 77-mile commuter rail between Austin and San Antonio, and it’s been studied since the creation of the Lone Star Rail District by the Texas Legislature in 1997. Over $20 million in taxpayer funds have already been spent on studying the feasibility of the corridor, and the price tag is somewhere between $2-$3 billion (that’s a big range). Union Pacific announced in February it would not allow the rail project to utilize its tracks. The feds passed on granting the project federal funding. Then the Chair of CAMPO, Will Conley, decided enough is enough and led the charge to have the board vote to defund the project August 8, leading all to believe it was the death knell for the Lone Star Rail.
That is until yesterday when the Bexar County Commissioners Court single-handedly revived it by finding a way to continue funding the environmental study and by moving the project from the Union Pacific tracks over to smack in the middle of I-35. Even worse, Commissioner Kevin Wolff managed to get Lone Star Rail’s biggest critic, Conley, to buy-into the revised scheme. Apparently his problem wasn’t the fact the project was a taxpayer sinkhole, but rather with the Lone Star Rail District he couldn’t control. To Wolff and Conley, as long as their two MPOs are in charge, it’s all good. They just hated being cut out from the levers of control.
The addition of a commuter rail line down the center of the vital corridor for the movement of people and goods through Texas and eventually up to the Canadian border just seriously upped the ante on the impact of Lone Star Rail, especially since future expansion of I-35 has already been severely hampered by lack of space in the heavily developed commercial corridor. Because of both spatial and fiscal constraints, new expansion of I-35 got enveloped into former Gov. Rick Perry’s grand toll road network across Texas.
Enter new Governor Greg Abbott who campaigned against toll roads. Yet I-35 from Austin to San Antonio is still being pursued as a toll project. In fact, it’s listed in the AAMPO’s plans as a public private partnership toll project a controversial type of contract that they do not even have authorization in state law to utilize. Expanding I-35 without new toll taxes on Texans should be the top priority for the entire state due to it being the vital corridor for the movement of people and goods through Texas and eventually up to the Canadian border.
Lumping Lone Star Rail into this toxic mix virtually guarantees the toll payers on I-35 will subsidize the rail project for the foreseeable future. There will be a deliberate attempt to co-mingle the finances and operations in order to obscure the money trail from the public. Tolls are already insufficient to pay for the entire $2 billion project without state subsidies, add $2-$3 billion for rail into the mix and imagine the kind of debt the two projects will saddle generations of Texans with (which goes against Abbott’s other campaign promise of no more road debt). Mushrooming the price tag is by design to make non-toll expansion appear that much further out of reach.
Having light rail down the middle of I-35 that’s already a parking lot, then trying to intermingle elevated express tolls lanes into it, only to somehow interact with millions of cars below it is overly complicated, will add years of delay to the fix (which will take decades to extend all the way to Austin), and makes it just plain dangerous.
TxDOT claimed at their public hearing on the I-35 toll express lanes last year that they couldn’t add new general purpose lanes on I-35 because there isn’t room. So they had to go elevated and it had to be tolled because of the cost. Ground level rail is enormously expensive, imagine the cost of elevated rail. If TxDOT magically pulls a rabbit out of its hat to have room for these tracks at ground level, not only were they misleading the public last year at the hearing, they’d be taking up the most valuable real estate in Texas and eliminating any hope of expanding general purpose lanes in the future, because now you’d either have to condemn billions in rail or billions in private commercial property in order to do it. Such a pie in the sky proposal that is not financially feasible dooms Texas like no other transportation policy on Abbott's watch. Interstate-35 is the life blood of commerce through Texas. If it gets buried under a pile of debt, endless rail subsidies, becomes too complex to navigate, or stays riddled with congestion, the 'Texas miracle' will become the Texas demise and the damage will be irreversible.
Only 2.7% of San Antonio commuters use transit. Government planners love to use ‘if you build it, they will come’ to garner buy-in by politicians to get the first link built, then they use the inevitability factor to eventually extend it all the way to Austin and saddle generations of Texans with a boondoggle of Texas-sized proportions. When 97% of commuters travel by car and overall transit ridership has remained flat for 45 years straight, it’s a pipe dream to think Lone Star Rail or any rail in Texas will ever be financially viable or a practical means of commuting that’s worth the enormous cost to build and maintain it. Forbes Magazine just held up Austin’s light rail system as a national ‘monument to government waste.’ It experiences dismal ridership. How can any public official think that a rail line between Austin and San Antonio would fare any better?
The rank and file of the Texas Republican Party, fiscal hawks, pro-liberty grassroots groups, and those with common sense have made it clear they do not want rail between Austin and San Antonio at a cost of $2-$3 billion or anywhere else. For that kind of money, just give Texans plain ol’ general purpose lanes and you’ll move far more people than they will in the empty rail cars the state will have to maintain.
Read the Watchdog.org article on it here.