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Lone Star Rail District looks for ways to snag federal funding

Monday, September 13, 2010 by Kimberly Reeves

The Lone Star Rail District’s board of directors will have to move, and move aggressively, to be part of the state’s new pursuit of rail money.


For more than a decade, the San Antonio to Georgetown commuter rail route has been in limbo. The first meeting of the San Antonio-Austin Commuter Rail District, championed by Senators Gonzalo Barrientos and Jeff Wentworth, was in 2003 but feasibility studies for the rail line go back as far as 1998.


The study, according to a 2003 annual report, projected the cost of the intermunicipal rail line at $500 million, with potential boardings of 8,000 to 11,000 people per year, which was roughly equivalent to traffic between Dallas and Fort Worth at the time the Trinity Rail Express was established.


In the intervening years, the district has stumbled on a number of funding issues, including multiple studies — one on commuter rail and another on feasibility and the potential income from tax-increment financing districts around train stations — and an analysis of alignment alternatives in the State Highway 130 corridor, completed by Jacobs Engineering in 2008.


A number of more recent factors, however, might be able to jumpstart progress: the creation and staffing of a stand-alone rail division within the Texas Department of Transportation; an infusion of federal stimulus money into high-speed rail; and the recasting of the Federal Railroad Administration in the new Obama administration as a grant-making body in addition to its regulatory authority.


So many now say that the time has come for the Lone Star Rail District – the former Austin-San Antonio Intermunicipal Rail District – to get on board with the new, bigger picture for moderate- and high-speed rail in both the state and nation. Texas lost out on $8 billion set aside for high-speed rail in the last stimulus package.


Bill Glavin’s job, as head of TxDOT’s new rail division, is to create a rail picture that is going to be attractive enough for the feds to fund. That means getting the alignment issues out of the way with Union Pacific about the Austin-San Antonio route and rolling the project into a larger and more ambitious state project that will propose upgrades from Oklahoma City to South Texas.


Members of the Lone Star Rail District grappled with the issue last Friday with a presentation by Glavin to the 14-member board on the ins and outs of the state’s new direction on pursuing $100 million in federal funding through the Federal Rail Administration. That would be $100 million, by the way, for the whole route.


Board members would go on to debate the merits of a non-compete contract extension with Jacobs Engineering on the alignment issues, but they appeared to be in agreement that the only way forward was with the state plan.


“The only way we’re going to get this done is to be part of a larger corridor between Oklahoma City and South Texas, and we need to be working to put ourselves into that larger project,” said John Langmore, Capital Metro’s representative on the regional board. “We will not get this project done without federal money, and it will never come out of state coffers in the near time.”


Council Member Sheryl Cole, a member of the board, echoed Langmore’s comments, noting the difficulty of financing rail through the member entities. It would be practically impossible, she said, to get local leaders on board to fund the project solely through local financing.


Beyond that, as Glavin told the board, federal authorities have made their preferences known that they don’t want to fund commuter rail. The preference is either high-speed rail or inner-city passenger rail. The region’s one hope – to get in line for federal funds – would be to become part of project that the federal government would consider a larger-scale national improvement effort.


“The corridor as they look at it, the Lone Star initiative, is not sufficiently inner-city,” Glavin said. “It smells too much of commuter rail, unless it’s seen as part of an overall larger global corridor or national implication corridor.


The Federal Railroad Administration already has raised concerns about the Lone Star freight relocation issue in a July letter to the state. That means the regional board has to move quickly to negotiate a memorandum of understanding with Union Pacific on freight rail relocation and begin the type of environmental study that is necessary to put the commuter rail line project the state plan.


The most obvious answer to the board’s Project Management Oversight Committee was to amend the contract with Jacobs Engineering, since the firm had worked extensive with the issue in the fatal flaws study. The board was divided on this approach, with San Antonio’s John Clamp saying he supported progress on the rail project but he had strong reservations about a non-compete.


“I always think it’s cleaner and much more of a level playing field to have an RFP or RFQ,” Clamp said. “I come from San Antonio. We have too much history of trouble with that sort of thing, and I try to stay as far away as possible from that kind of thing.”


Clamp was joined in his concerns by a number of board members. TxDOT also has expressed some reservations about a non-compete and has yet to give its full blessing. Supporters, on the other hand, considered time to be of the essence to get into the rail plan and the extension of the contract to be simply the extension of an expenditure that already had been competitively bid.


“I feel comfortable with this because of Jacobs’ strengths is the relationship its got with Union Pacific. They’ve been tightly involved in the creation of an MOU,” said board president Sid Covington. “How far would that set us back to do this all again or would we be dead in the water at that point? TxDOT should agree with that and not put any barriers in the way of that.”


Ross Milloy, who staffs the rail district at the Austin-San Antonio Corridor District, said he believed the district was within its legal bounds to extend the contract but expressed his unease that the board was so divided on the issue. He did offer to move forward with a fresh request for qualifications in as quick a fashion as possible, in anticipation of TxDOT nixing a contract extension.


The board, at the end of the discussion, landed on a vote to turn the decision back over to the Lone Star Rail District’s Project Management Oversight Committee and offering another caveats: constraining the contract to $1.9 million; stating a preference for a competitive bid process, if at all possible; and making sure the decision happens within the next two weeks.

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