Commuter rail plan sputters as Union Pacific ends negotiations

The dream of passenger rail between Georgetown and San Antonio, already a long shot because of lack of funding, was dealt a severe and possibly fatal blow this week when Union Pacific pulled out of negotiations for use of its track paralleling Interstate 35 through South and Central Texas.

The company, which has been talking for at least a decade to officials with the project’s developer, the Lone Star Rail District, told the district in a letter Tuesday that it is terminating agreements reached in 2009 and 2010 to formalize those discussions.

“We decided now is the time to cut the ties,” Union Pacific spokesman Jeff DeGraff said.

Jerry Wilmoth, Union Pacific’s general manager of network infrastructure, explained the company needs to get on with the business of improving its track and operations without the uncertainty caused by the lingering discussions with Lone Star.

“It has become apparent that the desired track alignments and infrastructure requirements necessary to support the efficient and reliable commingling of freight and commuter passenger rail are unattainable,” Wilmoth wrote. “(Union Pacific) can no longer, in good faith, constrain its growth by the conceptual discussion or previous expression of interest between the parties.”

Despite those stern words, Lone Star’s outside counsel, Austin attorney Bill Bingham, said the project remains viable. He said the district was talking to Union Pacific before it reached agreement on a feasibility study in 2009 and a memorandum of understanding in 2010, and it hopes to continue those discussions.

“It certainly was a disappointment when we got the letter on Tuesday,” Bingham said. “But we’ll continue on, and we’ll keep talking to Union Pacific. I think we’ll get this project done. I don’t know when or how.”

The San Marcos-based rail district, which has two full-time employees and shares its director with another organization, had its beginnings in 1997 legislation passed by then-state Sen. Gonzalo Barrientos, an Austin Democrat. The district formed about five years later, and ever since it has been studying the possibility of installing a commuter rail service on Union Pacific’s line as it passes from Williamson County through the heart of Austin, San Marcos, New Braunfels and San Antonio.

But the project has never been able to advance beyond paper and computer screens. The 1997 legislation gives the agency little taxation power — primarily the ability, with the local jurisdictions’ permission, to tax small areas near train stations — and no permission to run on the logical route, Union Pacific’s track.

Union Pacific’s position has always been that it might be amenable to sharing its tracks, but only if a parallel set of tracks was built well to the east of the I-35 corridor.

And, most significantly, Union Pacific — which, when the economy is humming, runs two to three dozen freight trains a day in that corridor — said the cost of that alternate track would fall to the district. That would be more than $2 billion.

Lone Star, which is in the midst of a federal environmental study of a system, has existed through the years primarily on federal grants and $49,500 a year payments by most of its member cities, counties, transit districts and other local governments. The city of Austin, Travis County, Capital Metro and Austin Community College are among the members.

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