AUSTIN (KXAN) — A new grassroots organization is renewing years-old efforts to revitalize passenger rail services connecting the Austin and San Antonio metros.
RESTART Lone Star Rail District launched in May to renew calls for a regional rail system linking the two major cities and their surrounding suburban communities. Clay Anderson, a transportation planner and the campaign’s founder, was drawn to the prospect of a new system that helped reduce congestion while expanding transit access between the two regions.
“In my mind, this is a service that people who do not use transportation or public transportation in their regular lives would consider using because of how difficult the drive is between the two cities,” he said. “A train just makes sense. It’s a no brainer, and I feel like it is a low-hanging fruit. If we can get this done, then we can get so many other things done, both within San Antonio and Austin.”
The latest proposal calls for 19 stops across eight cities, with a population size of approximately 4.5 million people.
Just as the name suggests, it isn’t the first time there’s been a proposal for regional rail linking San Antonio and Austin.
Back in the early 2000s, Union Pacific and the Lone Star Rail District signed an agreement to develop a route using Union Pacific’s tracks. However, Union Pacific pulled out of the deal in February 2016, with concerns the shared use of the tracks would hurt its business.
Ultimately, the Capital Area Metropolitan Planning Organization (CAMPO) voted to remove the proposed rail line from its 2040 plan in October 2016.
Now, Anderson said Union Pacific has signified possible interest in new Central Texas passenger rail proposals. Anderson said an investment in freight rail capacity could sway Union Pacific on the passenger rail front, while also removing excess emissions caused by large trucks on Texas roadways.
The proposed revitalization of regional rail comes amid investments in rail services at the local level. Austin is in the process of developing a light rail system and expanding its regional rail system courtesy Project Connect, the multi-billion transit overhaul plan approved by voters nearly three years ago.
Just last week, Travis County Judge Andy Brown signified interest in creating a possible task force to look into regional rail improvements.
“As we add so many people to our region, the transportation problem is getting undeniably worse,” Anderson said. “I think that this is starting to be public conscience, because we’re starting to realize that if you expand a roadway, it results in more traffic.”
A transportation modeling analysis conducted by Columbia University graduate Christian Budow estimated approximately four million people would use rail services linking San Antonio and Austin, based on 2021 travel data recorded between the two cities. Anderson cited those figures as an indication that there’s an appetite for rail given the sheer proximity between the two cities and no other travel alternatives, save for driving.
Alongside improved mobility, Anderson noted the economic prosperity that could come from linking the two cities and providing easier access to each’s sporting, music and cultural events.
“I believe that if we make a high quality service that will actually entice people to use the train, then that will result in less car dependency in the region,” Anderson said.
Currently, Anderson said RESTART Lone Star Rail District is advocating for CAMPO and the Alamo Area Metropolitan Planning Organization to revive planning efforts. The grassroots organization is also looking into federal dollars through the Inflation Reduction Act, which provided more than $3.2 billion to support grant funding for neighborhood equity, safety and affordable transportation projects.
Anderson said RESTART Lone Star Rail District is continue to build up its coalition alongside area community advocacy groups, as well as meet with city, county and other regional public officials regarding the initiative. In the coming months, Anderson added the advocacy group will begin canvassing efforts to help spread the word.