Wednesday, March 4, 2009

Freight rail has to stay on Austin line to serve quarries, Ben Wear notices

Ben Wear had an interesting column in the Statesman several days ago--at least interesting to those of us who hope that moving freight rail from the Union Pacific line through Austin will NOT destroy the Coupland community. His column explains why it might be harder than the "powers that be" have let on to remove the UP freight traffic. Compliments to Ben for noticing and analyzing this, and I wonder why the activists in the movement to run commuter rail from Georgetown to San Antonio have not mentioned it.

Quarries present quandary for commuter rail push

A half-dozen quarries line the Union Pacific track in Round Rock-San Antonio corridor, making it problematic to move freight traffic to a new line east of Austin.

Ben describes the "quarries out west of the interstate. First, one just south of Buda. Then a large one by the community of Hunter, between San Marcos and New Braunfels. I saw two more before I got to Loop 1604 north of San Antonio.

". . . They hug the east edge of the Hill Country, just as I-35 does. And just as does Union Pacific's rail line, the one that cuts through Austin and San Marcos.

"Moving Union Pacific's freight traffic off to some new track miles to the east [eastern Williamson County], something that Central Texas civic leaders have pursued fruitlessly for years, may be more complicated than I had been led to believe. Because all those quarries, plus Austin White Lime in Northwest Austin and an enormous quarry operation north of Round Rock send their rock off to market on that Union Pacific track.

". . . Without finding a way to move all or almost all of those freight trains to some alternate track in the Taylor-Elgin-Bastrop corridor [possibly through downtown Coupland], the grandly named, if ill-financed, Austin-San Antonio Intermunicipal Commuter Rail District is just spinning its notional wheels.

"Asking them to truck all that rock 20 miles east to a new line would make little sense. . . .

". . . The Round Rock-San Antonio corridor was already going to have to compete with other parts of the state for what might be $1 billion to $2 billion, and a state study last year showed that relocating Union Pacific would cost between $883 million and $2.4 billion. [This is the Central Texas Rail Relocation Study that showed either a new line going from Taylor to San Antonio or expanding the existing line through Coupland.]

"No one has yet identified other funding sufficient to move Union Pacific, much less the additional $600 million or more to get the passenger trains up and running. . . . The Austin-San Antonio commuter line may eventually be the little train that could. But it may have to navigate around a bunch of limestone to get there. "

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