Commuter rail group vows to get plan back on track

The group that's promoting a Georgetown, to Austin,  to San Antonio commuter rail line is now trying to get the project back on track. The effort is in response to a letter from Union Pacific that notified the Lone Star Rail District the company was ending negotiations.

The only expansion of commuter rail currently underway in Austin is being done by Cap Metro. The public transit agency is buying more trains and putting down more track to speed up it's Redline route from downtown to Leander. Thane Clamann, who rides metro rail, believes it’s time to provide the service to other parts of town.

"But where would we put it, we can’t go underground, it’s going to be harder more challenging if we go above ground but I’m for better transportation, better public transportation.", said Clamann. 

One possible answer to the question raised by Clamann is the long standing proposal to move freight traffic off of existing track that’s owned by Union Pacific. An Austin bypass for freight would open up space for a commuter service between San Antonio and Georgetown. The Lone Star Rail District was created to promote the route but the project still remains on a drawing board.

Tuesday, Union Pacific sent a letter notifying Rail District Chairman Sid Covington that the company has decided to terminate negotiations. U.P. executive Jerry Wilmoth wrote;

"Over the course of the past 6+ years of meetings, discussions, and studies, it has become apparent that the desired track alignments and infrastructure requirements necessary to support the efficient and reliable comingling of freight and commuter passenger rail are unattainable."

The company wants to shift its focus on upgrading its tracks to push more freight business through Austin.

The notification letter from Union Pacific comes at bad time when the city of Austin is looking to re-invest into the Rail District. It may appear the idea has derailed, but project managers claim it’s still viable.

"No, it is not game over,” said Rail district legal counsel Bill Bingham.

Within two weeks, Bingham said, the group expects to have a face-to-face discussion with U.P. executives in Omaha.  If the meeting fails to get them back on track, Bingham said work will still continue on the project’s environmental impact study, which is already half way done. That work will keep other options open.

" Yes there are alternatives being studied in the EIS process that would not use the UP line, would not  move the freight traffic but just build a passenger line somewhere in the Austin, San Antonio Georgetown corridor,” said Bingham.

Union Pacific apparently will still allow Amtrak to use its rail. A Train heading north arrives in Austin once in the morning and another returns southbound in the evening. Broxton Chinasa, who rode Amtrak Friday, said efforts to start a new daily-commuter service should not stop.

"It’s always a chance, it’s good to keep going, don’t give up, if you want to do something do it, if you want something to be done, keep doing it, Because not talking about it, it won’t get done,” said Chinasa.

Cost estimates for building a by-pass for union pacific have range from a billion dollars to $2-billion.

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