Taxpayers brace for hit from ‘Lone Star Rail’

Taxpayers brace for hit from ‘Lone Star Rail’
(Image via Texas A&M Transportation Institute)

[Even in Texas, uneconomic rail boondoggles cloud fiscal futures. – J.E.]

A national transportation expert calls the proposed Lone Star Rail project between Austin and San Antonio a bust for taxpayers.

Carrying an initial price tag of $2 billion to $3 billion, the commuter line would take over existing Union Pacific tracks near Interstate 35 and shift freight onto new rails to the east.

“This is how absurd governments can be when it comes to rail,” said Randal O’Toole, a senior fellow at the free-market Cato Institute.

“Union Pacific bought 8,000 miles of Southern Pacific tracks for $3 billion. To spend $3 billion for one short line is not in the realm of possibility,” he told Watchdog.org in an interview.

COMMUTER LINE: By rail, the 80-mile trip between Austin and San Antonio would clock in at 1 hour and 20 minutes — the current drive time. (Map courtesy Lone Star Rail)
COMMUTER LINE: By rail, the 80-mile trip between Austin and San Antonio would clock in at 1 hour and 20 minutes — the current drive time. (Map courtesy Lone Star Rail)

Lone Star Rail supporters are banking on matching money from Washington, and since the federal New Starts program no longer requires projects to prove “operating efficiencies,” LSTAR remains bureaucratically viable.

Chuck DeVore, vice president of national initiatives for the Texas Public Policy Foundation, said reliance on ill-conceived federal subsidies is no way to run a railroad.

“Politicians love to cut ribbons on shiny new things and ignore basic bus service that helps the working poor,” DeVore said.

“These (trains) never help relieve traffic. Ridership is infinitesimally small,” he noted.

O’Toole likens policymakers’ fixation with rail projects to the continued installation of streetcars in 1915, when automobiles were starting to hit the roads en masse.

“Technological change will overcome congestion,” he said, predicting the evolving generation of new cars could triple the capacity of existing roads, including I-35.

“Once 25 percent of cars have adaptive cruise control, roughly half of all congestion will go away,” O’Toole forecast.

Meantime, the Cato expert maintained no rail system in America can move more people than a two-lane freeway.

Undaunted, the government-run Lone Star Rail District is working with municipalities to form transportation infrastructure zones. Property tax increases within the zones would go toward train operations and maintenance. Sales tax increases are also being considered.

Regional mobility authorities have the power to impose still more tax hikes while siphoning toll-road revenues into rail ventures.

As I-35 conditions worsen, double-deck commuter buses would be a far cheaper and flexible alternative for frazzled motorists, but public subsidies distort transportation-financing models and suppress market-driven competition.

Indeed, Cato research found that New Starts rail projects can actually worsen congestion while increasing energy use and air pollution.

Yet the “free federal money” train rolls on with encouragement from both political parties. In Austin, legislation prohibiting New Starts from funding additional passenger rail projects in Texas died without a hearing last session.

Terri Hall, president of the nonpartisan Texans Uniting for Reform and Freedom, said local officials have already earmarked $20 million for two or more boarding platforms at unspecified sites.

Approved without public hearings, the platforms will be funded by gasoline taxes. “It’s another diversion of road money, and the public doesn’t have the first clue,” Hall said.

Read more by Kenric Ward at Watchdog.com.

Kenric Ward

Kenric Ward

Kenric Ward is a national correspondent and writes for the Texas Bureau of Watchdog.org. Formerly a reporter and editor at two Pulitzer Prize-winning newspapers, Kenric has won dozens of state and national news awards for investigative articles. His most recent book is “Saints in Babylon: Mormons and Las Vegas.”


Commenting Policy

We have no tolerance for comments containing violence, racism, vulgarity, profanity, all caps, or discourteous behavior. Thank you for partnering with us to maintain a courteous and useful public environment where we can engage in reasonable discourse.

You may use HTML in your comments. Feel free to review the full list of allowed HTML here.