March 4, 2023 - TRA Newswire -

In a recent letter to Texas Transportation Commission Chairman Bruce Bugg, Lone Star Rail District Interim Executive Director Ross Milloy said the rail organization is pleased to hear that TxDOT intends to file an application to the Federal Railroad Administration (FRA) that could connect the Texas Triangle cities with enhanced Amtrak passenger rail service. 

As part of a basket of new and expanded passenger and freight rail programs in the Infrastructure Law passed by Congress in 2021, the FRA is charged to examine rail corridors around the country that can be developed for frequent passenger train service. States like TxDOT have to file their intentions with the FRA this spring to qualify for fully-funded planning grants.

At present Texas cities are only served by a daily round-trip on the Texas Eagle between San Antonio and Chicago, another round-trip from Fort Worth to Oklahoma City and a tri-weekly train between New Orleans and Los Angeles along the I-10 corridor.

In the letter Milloy said "this is an important, possibly historic step toward expanding the state’s transportation network by adding new freight movement capacity and modal diversity. We believe that making infrastructure investments to improve train speeds through added capacity and increasing train frequencies can create a robust, reliable, energy-efficient, and safer alternative to Interstate 35 in the congested San Antonio to Dallas/Ft. Worth Corridor", according to Milloy. 

The Lone Star Rail District (LSRD) letter to Texas Transportation Commission Chair Bugg indicated that the rail agency "wishes to express its full cooperation and endorsement of TxDOT’s application and offer any potential assistance we might provide during this process, including prior preliminary engineering, ridership estimates, costs and revenue estimates, potential future funding sources offered by previously negotiated Tax Increment Financing Districts, and other related data."

There has been popular public support for connecting Texas' major cities and intermediate towns with corridor rail service but just tepid response in past years from the Texas Transportation Commission and previous executives at TxDOT. A survey of over 2,000 Texans commissioned by TxDOT and  the I-35 Corridor Advisory Committee over a decade ago showed an overwhelming response to the idea of connecting Texas cities and towns with frequent trains and even using tax dollars to implement it. 

Positive movement toward establishing regional rail service between Austin and San Antonio on a freight rail main line hit a roadblock in 2016 when an agreement between the rail district and Union Pacific Railroad fell apart. Amtrak, which is the national passenger rail carrier that has rights to operate on freight rail lines, was not involved with the Lone Star project at the time. New Federal Railroad Administration programs, along with Amtrak's new push to establish conventional service along intercity corridors, called Amtrak Connects US, may bring new life to the I-35 project. 

The letter to transportation leader Bugg pointed out that the Lone Star Rail District also has some authorities granted by the Texas Legislature that might become useful to TxDOT in furthering the effort, should that be beneficial.

The Lone Star Rail District was created by the legislature as a local governmental entity and political subdivision of the State in 2003 under Texas Transportation Code § 173. LSRD did extensive planning work to develop passenger rail service between San Antonio and Georgetown, investing approximately $25 million in preliminary engineering and environmental clearance work using a combination of local, state, and federal funding. Amtrak officials have suggested that some portion of that investment might potentially be considered as an in-kind match for future federal dollars invested in this corridor.

The LSRD board represents the five largest counties in Central Texas as well as the larger cities of San Antonio, New Braunfels, San Marcos, and Austin. "This may be useful political support with FRA, as well as polling data done by LSRD indicating overwhelming popular support for passenger rail in at least the San Antonio-Austin portion of this corridor", according to Milloy. LSRD also has a memorandum of understanding with the North Central Texas Council of Governments to jointly work on planning to extend passenger rail service from the San Antonio to Georgetown area to the Dallas-Fort Worth area, should that prove helpful to TxDOT planners.

The letter closes with "LSRD thus offers to cooperate with TxDOT in any way possible on this passenger rail project and will make available knowledgeable professional personnel to assist in the preparation of TxDOT’s application, if desired. LSRD looks forward to working with TXDOT on your initiative, which is critical for the future of Texas transportation."

Photo credit: Texas Rail Advocates