Wolff's rail plan tough, costly
But separate projects could help the effort of rerouting trains. October 24, 2004
Patrick Driscoll, Staff Writer
SAN ANTONIO EXPRESS-NEWS
County Judge Nelson Wolff has a dream to move train traffic away from San Antonio's core to make the city safer, but he knows it will take lots of sweat, money and patience.
In fact, there's a chance he might not be around to see his ambitious idea come to fruition.
The rosy scenario is to reroute freight trains around the city within 10 years, keeping much of the toxic cargo that travels on the rails away from heavily populated areas and reducing danger where tracks cross local streets.
But rerouting trains is a massive job involving officials from local to national levels, and it could take several decades to complete. A similar project in Brownsville - where a rail line looping around the north side of the city opened last year - took 30 years.
"Hopefully, it won't take that long," Wolff said. "I'll be almost 94. I may not make it."
Wolff and other local officials began talking about moving Union Pacific rail lines away from downtown in May after a train derailed near Brackenridge High School, injuring three men and spilling 5,600 gallons of diesel fuel along the San Antonio River. Four undamaged cars were carrying highly flammable propane.
Bexar County stepped up the pressure on UP, which owns all the tracks here, after a train collision in June left three people dead and 49 sick or injured, mostly from chlorine gas. It was the nation's deadliest chemical accident on the rails in more than a decade.
As UP and county officials played phone tag and swapped letters in the following months, at least two more trains derailed, though no hazardous materials were released.
Life has changed for those who live near railroad tracks. The wail of train whistles, whether nostalgic or bothersome, depending on the person, now signals potential peril.
"Now the sound reminds me of how fragile life is and how vulnerable my family and neighbors are," said Robert Wilson, who lives south of downtown. "I can't accept any idea that we are helpless in this community to do something about it."
Local officials agree and are enlisting the help of any heavy hitter they can find to construct new rail lines to get non-local freight traffic out of inner-city neighborhoods. Most of the 70 trains rolling into San Antonio every day are just passing through.
Strategies call for putting a new rail line south of the city for east-west traffic and adding tracks east of Interstate 35 to handle north-south trains. State officials are already negotiating with UP to move freight off a line along I-35 to free it up for commuter rail between San Antonio and Austin.
"It could take 10 years," said Bruce Flohr, a railroad consultant and chairman of the Bexar County Rail District who is helping lead local discussions with UP. "It depends on how fast you want to move on it and where you get the money."
UP, which is regulated at the federal level, would want to benefit from any changes, such as the ability to move trains faster on uncongested rural routes.
"Lots of people like to talk about relocating us but finding the means to do so doesn't often happen," said Scott Moore, UP's general manager of public partnerships. "If somebody wants to move us, they have to convince us why."
It helps that Robert Nichols, a member of the Texas Transportation Commission, is already negotiating with UP for new tracks to loop around Austin - a project that could cost $500 million.
"If they're pushing an agenda like this, then we've got some pretty powerful players on our side," Wolff said.
The trick for San Antonio is to get those tracks extended down to Luling or Seguin, and maybe south to curve along or near Southeast Loop 1604.
"We'd hit a home run," Wolff said.
That could happen with the Trans Texas Corridor , a proposed route of rails and toll roads paralleling I-35 from Mexico to Oklahoma, said state Rep. Mike Krusee, R-Round Rock, who chairs the House Committee on Transportation.
The winning bid from firms proposing to finance and build that route will be unveiled before the end of the year.
Local officials would still have to figure out how to fund a track through South Bexar County, which Flohr says would be at least 10 miles. Based on estimates for a once-proposed rail link to the Toyota manufacturing plant, that could run $30 million or more.
Money would likely come from local, state and federal sources. UP also would be asked to contribute.
"It's going to be a while and it's going to be expensive," Flohr said.
The first step is a study, which Flohr hopes will start next year.
Also, U.S. Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison, R- Texas , has called on the Federal Railroad Administration and the National Transportation Safety Board to investigate the railroad infrastructure here.
Brownsville has shown that successfully dealing with UP and relocating rails can be done, even if it takes a while and looks hopeless at times.
The task began as a federal demonstration project in 1973, with funds dribbling in during the 1980s and 1990s. It took $47.4 million to construct 9.4 miles of tracks, several bridges and two switching yards, according to the Port of Brownsville, which oversaw the work.
"I came in in 1990 (as a consultant) and there wasn't a blade of dirt that had been turned" for track construction, Port Director Raul Besteiro said of the slow pace. "And everybody told me I was crazy to take the job."
Things are looking better to build up to eight more miles of track on the west side of Brownsville and pay for half of a new border bridge to get the remaining train traffic out of the city. That $20 million project began four years ago and could be finished in two years.
Officials say they're moving faster because they now know the drills.
"It involves a lot of hard work and dedication but if you've got the right leadership, you can get it done," said Pete Sepulveda, transportation director for Cameron County, which is heading up the west side project.
Meanwhile, Brownsville is redeveloping an old rail yard and tracks into a park with an amphitheater and nine-mile hike-and-bike trail.
The $3 million job, expected to be completed in 2006, will help tie together museums and a historic battlefield in the Mitte Cultural District.
"To us, it's like a new entrance to our downtown," said Mark Lund, director of the Brownsville Metropolitan Planning Organization. "You've got all the ingredients for a truly special place."
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